Food Allergies in Children

Whether or not food allergies are on the rise is not certain, but our awareness of their existence and potential danger has increased over the last decade.

What exactly is an allergy?

It is the body's reaction to a certain substance. This substance can enter the body by ingestion, breathing it in or touching the skin. An allergic reaction is caused by the body's immune (defence system). While there are different types of allergic reactions as far as food is concerned, the ones that we are most worried about are the immediate, generalized reactions. Symptoms of such an allergic reaction include:

  • Difficulty breathing with or without wheezing
  • Swollen throat or tongue
  • Swelling, especially around the face and mouth
  • Rash(hives or urticaria)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Cramps and diarrhea
  • Loss of consciousness

The generalized reactions are referred to as anaphylaxis which unfortunately can be deadly. However, these symptoms can be due to other problems. For example, cramps, diarrhea and vomiting can occur as a result of food poisoning. An asthma attack (wheezing and difficulty breathing) on its own is not usually due to an immediate food allergy. However it has to be within an hour or so of eating a certain food. If your child has ever had any one of these symptoms within a short time of eating a particular food, you should discuss this with a doctor. Of course, in an emergency, seek immediate urgent medical aid.

What are the most common causes of food allergy?

While theoretically any food can cause an allergy, the following are the most common in children:

  • Cow's milk(the most common food allergy in young children)
  • Soya
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Nuts
  • Wheat
  • Seafood

Importantly, sulfites, other preservatives and "artificial" colorants or food dyes can also cause an allergic reaction.

How is an allergy confirmed?

A simple skin allergy test or a blood test can confirm the presence of an allergy. Once an allergy has been confirmed and the physician feels that there is a potential for future anaphylactic reactions, the parents are told to strictly avoid that food. In such cases, the doctor will prescribe medications needed to be kept on hand in case of accidental ingestion of the food the child is allergic to. This may be an antihistamine syrup and in many situations, an "auto injector" that looks like a pen but contains a pre-measured amount of adrenaline (epinephrine). Adrenaline is the only medication that can reverse or stop an anaphylactic reaction and administrating it immediately can save lives. One such injector is called "Epipen" and is to be carried to wherever the child goes. Today, many schools have an Epipen on hand and/or are quite familiar with how to use one. If a child ever requires his/her Epipen, emergency transportation to the nearest hospital should immediately follow at all times.

Many other types of reactions occur as a result of foods, including intolerances and other symptoms that are neither "allergic-based" nor life-threatening. This is why it is important to evaluate a child with a suspected food allergy to identify and confirm an allergy so the necessary avoidance precautions are taken. On the other hand in the case that an allergy is not found, then restricting the child's diet would not be necessary.