Health Crush Contributor
So, how do you know when your child has a food allergy? Food allergies in children can be scary; no one wants to see their child suffer with a rash, runny nose, or itchy/tingly mouth every time a meal comes around, and no caregiver wants to rush a child to the hospital for a possible life-threatening allergic reaction. That's why we've mapped out just how you can tell if your child is considered high-risk and what precautions you can take.
Important facts about childhood food allergies
Food allergies take many forms
Before looking into the most common food allergies in children, it’s important to know food allergies are not limited to specific foods or food groups. A food allergy can occur after contact with any food the body decides to have an immune system reaction to, even if that food isn’t on the top “most common” lists. Some children may have rare reactions, so when watching for food allergies, be on the lookout for chronic symptoms of:
- Skin rash, itching, hives
- Feeling of dread
- Stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea
- Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, wheezing
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), food allergy symptoms can be mild or severe and sometimes can manifest as life-threatening anaphylaxis, a body-wide allergic reaction that affects circulation and breathing and can send the body into shock.
Not all symptoms after eating point to food allergies
Children with food reactions may not be experiencing an allergy. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America notes some children may have food intolerance, a condition that does not involve an immune system response. With food intolerance, a child’s digestive system has difficulty breaking down a certain food, and this can lead to many of the same symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhea. Because there can be a big difference in the medical treatment of a food allergy versus a food intolerance, it is important to have your child visit a doctor as soon as a food reaction is suspected.
The 5 most common offenders
Now that you know a little about food allergies in children, it’s time to take a look at the most common foods responsible. An estimated 1 in 13 children has a food allergy of some degree, with a 50% incident increase over the last two decades. With food allergies on the rise, it’s important to know these items on the watch list:
- Cow milk
- Peanuts and tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts, almonds, hazelnuts; nuts in hard shells)
Some children may also be an allergy to fish or shellfish. While this food allergy is reported less frequently, it is still considered a common allergen in children and adults.
Children with food allergies may also experience something known as “cross-reactivity.” This happens when an allergy to food results in an allergy to another food of similar protein makeup. Kids who are allergic to cow milk, for example, may also develop allergies to goat milk. If you child has a known food allergy, be very careful about using alternative products too similar in nature. In most cases, it’s best to completely avoid a food type rather than try to swap a similar item into mealtime.
Who is at risk?
While any child may develop a food allergy, here are some important stats from FARE and the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology:
- Young children have higher rates of food allergies
- Boys tend to develop more food allergies than girls
- Hispanic children are more likely to develop corn, shellfish, and fish allergies, compared to non-Hispanic white children
- Hispanic children have higher rates of anaphylaxis, compared to non-Hispanic white children
- Hispanic children are more likely to visit the emergency room for food allergy complication compared, to non-Hispanic white children
- Children with low exposure to common allergens during childhood
What to do if your child has a food allergy
Food allergies in children have no “cure,” though many of these allergies can disappear as a child grows older. Aside from eliminating contact with trigger foods, caregivers also need to make sure to do thorough research when buying packaged foods. Not all labels contain complete ingredient lists, and some foods may be processed in plants where allergens are present, even if they don’t contain the allergen as an ingredient.
Food awareness aside, it’s important your child and those he or she is frequently around know how to recognize the symptoms of a food allergy and know what medications to give, if any. Some children with severe food allergies may always need access to emergency medications, like epinephrine.
Children, school, and food allergies
When it comes to sending a child to school with a food allergy, FARE recommends parents and caregivers first find out about that school’s existing food allergy policy. If one is in place, great! If your school doesn’t have an adequate program, you’ll have to make sure teachers and staff at the school learn what’s the be expected of them. In either situation, you’ll want to provide:
- An emergency care plan listing all food allergens, symptoms, treatments, emergency contacts, and picture of your child. You can download a FARE emergency care form template HERE.
- Any medications your child needs. Don’t leave it up to the nursing office.
It’s also recommended you remain active at your child’s school. If possible, meet regularly with teachers and staff to keep everyone updated on your child’s needs. Many children’s treatment needs change as they grow older, so it’s important to keep everyone on the same page.
Some schools may require you to fill out their version of an emergency care plan, but no matter what forms you use, be certain to include all the information you know is important to your child, even if it means handing in your own additional paperwork, signed by your medical professional.
Time is of the essence with food allergies
Not all children are going to need hospitalization when it comes to a food allergy, but the Centers for Disease Control report food allergies result in more than 300,000 ambulatory-care visits a year among children under the age of 18, and food allergy is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting.
If your child is showing symptoms of a food allergy, don’t wait. Reactions can vary with each exposure. Just because your child usually develops a rash only doesn’t mean he or she won’t suddenly have trouble breathing. Be aware and be vigilant, administer medications as soon as possible, and make food allergies in children a little less scary.