According to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), 1 in every 13 children in the United States has a food related allergy. That’s 6 million children! And the prevalence of childhood allergies is on the rise and lasting longer than ever before.
Here is what you need to know:
If you have a child who displays reactive symptoms towards milk, eggs, wheat, or soy, there is a good chance it’s just a childhood allergy and will not last into adulthood. As long as the reaction is not life threatening, continue periodically introducing those foods to your child. Some childhood allergies last longer than others, but don’t assume that just because your child showed a reaction the first couple times they were exposed that they will continue to be allergic to that food. Allergies to nuts and shellfish tend to last into adulthood.
Allergies vs. Intolerances
There is a difference between food allergies and intolerances (Mayo Clinic). An allergy occurs when the body releases histamines in response to a specific food. An intolerance is when the body lacks something required for the processing of that food, and so it is poorly processed or not processed at all. Lactose intolerance and gluten intolerance are both examples of the body lacking necessary components to process lactose or gluten.
There is no evidence to suggest that delaying the introduction of foods has any effect on the development of allergies. However, breastfeeding exclusively until the child is 6 months old supports a stronger immune system and less chance of the child developing allergies (read more on the benefits of breastfeeding in my article Breastmilk or Formula? The Never-Ending Debate!)
Similarly, early childhood exposure to infections can increase immune activity and decrease the likelihood of developing allergies (Kramer, Heinrich, Wjst, Wichmann, 1999). Allowing your kids to play outside and be exposed to dirt, animals, and other children is actually good for their immune system.
Allergy testing is intended for suspected allergens only and is not always accurate as an open-ended test to determine if your child has any allergies. Don’t worry about allergies unless they are actually affecting your child.
Living with Allergies
The reality is there are no preventative medications for food allergies. The only way to prevent reactions is by avoiding the allergen.
The best things you can do as a parent are to:
Read food labels
Sometimes food contain unexpected ingredients. I knew a sweet child who was allergic to corn (among other things). He kept reacting to his baby formula and we couldn’t figure out why. Eventually it was established that there was corn starch in his formula. Corn starch is also added to many other things as a thickening agent, including many common baby foods. Reading all food labels ensures no surprises for your or your child.
Let everyone close to your child know about their allergy. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It may feel like you’re being that mom, but if your child has a serious reaction, this could be incredibly important for their health. Most allergic reactions occur outside of the home – at a restaurant, or at school. Let family, friends, babysitters, teachers, nursery workers, etc. know about your child’s allergy. What causes it, how your child reacts, and what they need to know if a reaction occurs.
Do NOT live your life in fear
It’s tempting to try and shelter a child with allergies, but this is not good for the child. They need to know that even if they have an allergy, they are just as capable of living a full and healthy life as any other child. It’s recommended by the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology to allow children suffering from asthma to participate in physical education and sports. Medication may be required for their comfort and safety, but they should be allowed to do everything their non-allergic counterparts are doing.
If your child does not have life-threatening allergic symptoms, continue periodically exposing them to their allergen (Note: some reactions may increase in strength. Observe your child during exposure in case medical assistance is required). Once tolerance has been established (that is, they no longer show an allergic reaction towards that food) continue giving it to them frequently. Evidence shows that increased exposure after tolerance is important to prevent reoccurrence of the allergy (Mayo Clinic).
Desensitization is a method for limiting reactions by giving people with allergies small amounts of the allergen, then increasing the dose gradually. The idea is that the body will have time to get used to the allergen and will react less severely after a while. This has been shown to work in some instances. You may want to talk to your pediatrician to decide the right thing to do in your case.
Do you have children who suffer from allergies? What advice would you give other parents?