Children's Food Allergens December 11, 2006

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Central Texans know how to spread holiday cheer and more often than not, we choose to share food with our friends and family. While we usually know from experience what our family members can and can't have, it's a different story with friends and their families. "Food allergies are much more prevalent in children," says Amy Hall, RD, LD Pediatric Dietician for Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas. Those of us planning on sharing food with others need to be cautious. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, it does not take much of the food to cause a severe reaction in highly allergic people. In fact, as little as 1/44,000 of a peanut kernel can cause an allergic reaction for severely allergic individuals.

"It has become a big enough problem that the FDA is requiring food manufacturers to list food allergens," says Hall. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Web site, "Effective January 1, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requiring food labels to clearly state if food products contain any ingredients that contain protein derived from eight major allergenic foods."

What is food allergy?

A food allergy is an abnormal response of the body to a certain food. It is important to know that this is different from a food intolerance, which does not affect the immune system, although some of the same symptoms may be present.

What causes food allergy?

Before having a food allergy reaction, a sensitive child must have been exposed to the food at least once before, or could also be sensitized through breast milk. It is the second time your child eats the food that the allergic symptoms happen. At that time, antibodies created from the first exposure react with the food trigger, releasing histamines that can cause your child to experience hives, asthma, itching in the mouth, trouble breathing, stomach pains, vomiting, and/or diarrhea.

What is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?

Food allergy causes an immune system response, causing symptoms that range from uncomfortable to life threatening. Food intolerance does not affect the immune system, although some symptoms may be the same as in food allergy.

What foods most often cause food allergy?

Approximately 90 percent of all food allergies are caused by the following eight foods:

  • milk
  • eggs
  • wheat
  • soy
  • tree nuts
  • fish
  • shellfish
  • peanuts

Eggs, milk, and peanuts are the most common causes of food allergies in children, followed by wheat, soy, and tree nuts. Peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish commonly bring on the most severe reactions. Between two and four percent of children have food allergies. Although most children "outgrow" their allergies, sensitivity to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish may be life-long.

What are the symptoms of food allergy?

Allergic symptoms may begin within minutes to an hour after ingesting the food. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. The symptoms of food allergy may resemble other problems or medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis. Common symptoms include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • cramps
  • hives
  • swelling
  • eczema
  • itching or swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth
  • itching or tightness in the throat
  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing
  • lowered blood pressure

What is recommended treatment for food allergy?

There is no medication to prevent food allergy. The goal of treatment is to avoid the foods that cause the symptoms. All treatment decisions should be made in consultation with your child's physician.

Once you discover which foods you child cannot tolerate, it is very important to eliminate them and similar foods from the diet. If you are breastfeeding, you should avoid foods that you know cause problems for your child. Small amounts of the allergen may be transmitted to your child through your breast milk and cause a reaction.

It is also important to give vitamins and minerals to your child if he/she is unable to eat certain foods.

For children who have had a severe food reaction, the doctor may prescribe an emergency kit that contains epinephrine to help stop the symptoms of severe reactions.

Some children, under the direction of a physician, may be given certain foods again after 3 to 6 months to see if the child has outgrown the allergy. Many allergies may be short-term in children and the food may be tolerated after the age of 3 or 4.

What about milk and soy allergies in young children?:

Allergies to milk and soy are usually seen in infants and young children. Often, these symptoms are unlike the symptoms of other allergies, but, rather, may include the following:

  • colic (fussy baby)
  • blood in your child's stool
  • poor growth

Often, your child's physician will change your baby's formula to a soy formula or breast milk. If your child has problems with soy formula, there is a more easily digested hypoallergenic formula.

Can food allergies be prevented?

The development of food allergies cannot be prevented, but can often be delayed in infants by following these recommendations:

  • If possible, breastfeed your infant for the first 6 months.
  • Do not give solid foods until your child is 6 months of age or older.
  • Avoid cow's milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, and fish during your child's first year of life.
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