Food allergies are a growing problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in the cases of children, an allergic reaction to something as simple as sandwich could potentially be life-threatening.
About 4-6 percent of children in the U.S. have food allergies, and it's important to know whether your child is among this group.
Here's what will help you determine if your child has a food allergy:
The most common food allergies in children are reactions to peanuts and milk. Allergies to eggs, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat and tree nuts (such as pecans, walnuts and cashews) are also very common. Children can outgrow some allergies, but the most severe ones can last throughout their lifetimes. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are often the most severe and the most likely to persist.
Delaying food allergies
You can't prevent your child from developing a food allergy, but you can sometimes delay it in infants by doing the following:
- Breastfeeding for the first six months if possible
- Delaying solid foods until your child is at least six months old
- Avoiding cow's milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts and fish until your child is over one year of age
When your child is very young, you'll have to be observant to pick up on signs of food allergies that he or she may not be able to communicate. In some cases, a baby can even have an allergic reaction to a food they're exposed to through breast milk. As your child gets older, they'll be able to describe the symptoms better but still may need to be asked questions about how they feel.
Common symptoms of a food allergy you should watch out for include the following:
- Tingling or itching in the mouth
- Hives, itching or eczema
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, throat, face or other body part
- Wheezing, congestion or difficulty breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness, light-headedness or fainting
Identifying the allergen
When your child is young, introducing one new food at a time can help pinpoint a potential allergen (allergy-causing substance) more easily. A visit to an allergist or pediatric allergist can definitively identify (or rule out) the food – or foods – your child is allergic to by using a skin or patch test or another method.
What are the next steps?
Since there's no medication available to treat food allergies, the goal is to avoid foods that cause your child's symptoms, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. You'll have to learn what foods to help your child avoid and depending on which foods he or she can't eat, vitamin and mineral supplements may be recommended.
Some children can be given certain foods carefully in a few months, but only under the direction of a health care provider. This will help you know if your child has outgrown the allergy.
If your child has a food allergy, the doctor will probably recommend an emergency kit that contains epinephrine. This medication, which can be purchased under the brand name EpiPen or as a generic medication, can help stop a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
You, your child (if he or she is old enough) and any caregivers should know how to administer epinephrine if needed. If your child is school age, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) offers tips to help keep them safe while they're at school, starting with a Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan that you can download in English as well as Spanish.