From nutrition to how we celebrate special occasions, food plays such an important role in our daily lives. For those living with a food allergy or food intolerance, meals and treats have to be planned much more cautiously.
Food problems continue to be a topic on the rise in the United States, especially in children. “From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18 percent among children under age 18 years,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The majority of food allergies tend to pop up in infancy and early childhood and in the United States, about 90 percent of food allergies come from just eight foods: eggs, milk, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. However, sesame is becoming the ninth most common food allergy.
What’s the difference between an allergy and intolerance?
A food allergy is when the immune system negatively reacts to certain foods, causing potentially life-threatening symptoms.
“In a food allergy, the symptoms tend to be of an immediate onset,” says Dr. Lisa Martorano, pediatric allergist/immunologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Most reactions happen within one to two hours and the symptoms we see tend to be due to something called histamine that’s released during allergic reactions.”
Histamine can cause sneezing; itchy, watery or red eyes; hives; wheezing; trouble breathing; swelling of the tongue or lips; and vomiting.
“In very severe cases, a food allergy reaction can cause multiple symptoms and that is called anaphylactic or systemic reaction,” Martorano adds.
A food intolerance is the body’s inability to digest certain foods. While it’s non-life threatening, it can cause severe discomfort such as gas, belly pain, bloating and diarrhea.
How are food allergies diagnosed and treated?
If your child is experiencing symptoms after eating certain foods, a visit to an allergist for allergy testing will be the best way to tell if your child has a true food allergy.
“In the United States, about one in four people report that they have some kind of a food allergy, but when you actually do testing, only about six percent of people are allergic to food,” explains Dr. Eli Silver, pediatric specialist in allergy and immunology at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “Maybe they have an intolerance, but not a true allergy.”
Before you head to the allergist’s office, it’s important to record as much information as you can about the suspected food allergen.
“We’ll want to know about the food that was ingested, how much and what form, were there other foods that were ingested around the same time, and then how soon after eating the food did your child develop symptoms and what were those symptoms,” Martorano adds.
Allergists may perform skin tests, blood tests or an oral food challenge.
Depending on the severity of the food allergy, your child may be prescribed an EpiPen, which should be carried around at all times. The EpiPen is an auto injection device filled with the life-saving drug epinephrine and it should be used if your child experiences an emergency allergic reaction.
Some allergists also are using oral immunotherapy, which involves gradually increasing the child’s exposure to their food allergen until they are no longer allergic to the food.
In some cases, your child may outgrow their allergy on their own.
“Milk and egg allergies are quite prevalent in children and the majority of those tend to be outgrown by late childhood or early teenage years,” explains Martorano. “With peanuts and tree nuts, those allergies tend to stick around a lot longer. Only about 20 percent of children will outgrow that allergy type.”
Managing your child’s food allergy
Getting the diagnosis that your child has a food allergy can be overwhelming at first.
“I think one of the hardest things when my children were diagnosed, is that we felt really alone out there,” says Dr. Abby Glick, mother of three boys, two of whom have severe food allergies.
Glick says connecting with other families who were dealing with food allergies was extremely helpful.
“Even as a physician, I didn’t know how to properly read a food label and had to learn that sometimes you actually need to call the manufacturer to find out if foods are processed on shared equipment with your food allergen,” she says. “It also can be difficult to figure out which restaurants may be able to accommodate food allergies, camps that can handle such allergies, and to learn how to travel safely. It’s nice to be able to talk to families who have already been through it.”
Glick founded Northeast Ohio Food Allergy Network (NEOFAN), a nonprofit dedicated to providing support to those affected by food allergies and raising awareness and providing education in the community.
Since many children are diagnosed with food allergies in infancy or toddler years, it’s important to teach them about their food allergy as early as possible.
“My oldest son was diagnosed at 8 months old,” Glick adds. “He had his first episode of anaphylaxis at 18 months and that’s when I realized that I had no choice but to start being very careful and educating him. He learned at a very young age not to share food or take food from anyone unless I said it was OK.”
Children’s books about food allergies are helpful learning tools, as well as showing your child what their allergen actually looks like so they know what to avoid.
Parents and other caregivers also should make sure they know how to properly use their child’s EpiPen in the event of an emergency.