Understanding Food Allergies in Children
Jun 12, 2017
In an effort to keep your child healthy, his or her immune system is continually fighting off infections. When your child's immune system senses that a food or something in a food is a "danger" to your child's health, a food allergy reaction occurs. This can cause hives, asthma, itching in the mouth, trouble breathing, stomach pains, vomiting, or diarrhea. It does not take much of the food to cause a severe reaction in highly allergic children.
The most common food allergies are caused by these foods:
- Tree nuts
Although most children “outgrow” their allergies, some food allergies may last a lifetime. As a parent it’s important to be prepared.
Mallory and Mike Getty were first introduced to their son’s food allergy at around 18 months when he accidentally squirted a bottle of mustard in his face and broke out into hives. At the time, they treated the reaction with Benadryl but didn’t understand what it meant for their family until a few months later.
Around 20 months, the couple learned what anaphylaxis was. Their son tried hummus for the first time (a main ingredient in hummus is “Tahini” also known as “sesame oil”). About 15 minutes later he began vomiting forcefully and developed a very runny nose and eyes. The couple assumed the runny nose was simply due to crying and did not recognize it as a sign of anaphylaxis.
“After a few hours he stopped vomiting and we thought it was just a stomach bug,” said Mallory. “It wasn’t until we tried to put him to bed for the night that we heard his breathing had become a terrible wheezing. We jumped in the car and raced to the hospital.”
As a result of this scary turns of events, Mike and Mallory learned their son was one in 13 children in the United States who suffers from a food allergy. It was a continuous learning process for the Gettys but in the years to come they discovered some valuable tips for managing their son’s allergy such as:
- If the child is old enough to ‘self-carry’ their EpiPens, do it.
- Always carry extra EpiPens.
- Teach your child not to fear the EpiPen. Teach yourself not to fear the EpiPen.
- Hand sanitizer does NOT remove food protein.
- Hand wipes go everywhere - not just to clean eating surfaces but to clean hands. (Food allergens are not limited to food. Nut and sesame oils are commonly used in soaps, detergents, and lotions.)
- Pack food and snacks from home for public outings or carry a food allergy card to give to your server before you order food for your child.
- Go to school/daycare/babysitter and observe. As a food allergy parent you will recognize risks that staff may not know to identify. You can educate them while working together on solutions to the problem.
“Teach your child the things you do to keep them safe as early as you can,” said Mallory. “It’s natural to want to shelter them from the burden as long as possible because you know it’s one they will have to carry their whole life. The earlier you start, the better engrained the safety habits will be for them and the more prepared and secure they will feel.”
Diagnosing a Food Allergy
In order to accurately diagnose a food allergy, your child's healthcare provider will perform a physical exam and obtain a thorough health history. This history should include a list of foods that were eaten before the allergic symptoms. The healthcare provider will do some tests to make an exact diagnosis such as:
Skin prick test
The skin prick test is a very accurate test that measures your child’s level of IgE antibodies in response to certain allergens or triggers. Using small amounts of solutions that contain different allergens, your child’s healthcare provider will either give a shot of the solution under the skin or put it on with a small scratch. A reaction would appear as a small red area.
Blood tests for allergies measure IgE antibodies to specific allergens in the blood. The blood test most commonly used is called a radioallergosorbent test or RAST. Blood tests may be used when skin tests can’t be done. As with skin testing, it is important to remember that a positive blood test does not always mean your child is allergic to that allergen.
Food challenge test
This test is given by an allergist. He or she administers a very small amount of an allergen by mouth. The allergen can also be inhaled.
Keep in mind, anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction. If your child experiences any of the following symptoms call 9-1-1 to get help right away.
- Trouble breathing, shortness of breath, or wheezing
- Feeling as if the throat is closing
- Hoarseness or difficulty talking
- Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, and throat
- Cool, moist, or pale blue skin
- Feeling faint, lightheaded, or confused
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Fast and weak heartbeat
- Feeling dizzy, with a sudden drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness