Figuring out Food Allergies

Parents have been itching to ask me questions about whether or not their child has a food allergy.  Well let me try to scratch the surface on this particular topic.

More than 2 million children in this country suffer from a food allergy.  The most common allergies are to peanuts and other nuts, seafood (especially shellfish), cow’s milk, eggs, soy and wheat.  Some studies suggest that if you breastfeed your baby for at least 6 months, the risk of developing a food allergy will be lessened.  While most children will outgrow an allergy to cow's milk, other food allergies, like a peanut allergy, may be lifelong.

Food allergies result when your child’s body mistakenly treats a food or ingredient in that food as an enemy and releases chemicals that not only destroy that food, but also turn against your child’s own body.  In mild cases, your child may experience an itchy rash called hives, a runny nose, or a mild tingling of the lips or tongue.  More severe food allergic reactions can result in vomiting, diarrhea, stomach or abdominal pain.  The most severe reactions can cause a combination of low blood pressure and difficulty breathing, a condition we call anaphylaxis.

How can you tell if your child is allergic to a food?  He or she may develop any of the symptoms I just listed above after eating a particular food.  But even then, we may not know just what ingredient caused the allergy, in which case your doctor may recommend further blood or skin testing or refer your child to a pediatric allergy specialist for additional testing to find the specific ingredient causing the allergy.

Once a food allergy is diagnosed by blood or skin testing, the best treatment is to avoid the food itself, and any foods or drinks that contain the allergic ingredient – so read food labels carefully.  A medic alert bracelet can alert others to this allergy, and you should let your child’s school, child care providers and even favorite restaurants know, so there is no accidental chance of adding of the allergic ingredient to your child’s meals.

If your child is at risk for a serious reaction, your child’s doctor may give you or your child (if they are older) an epi-pen.  This is a pen-like device that contains a dose of adrenaline that a parent can inject into their child, or an older child can self-inject, to reduce the severity of the allergic reaction until emergency assistance is available.

Hopefully tips like this will be nothing to sneeze at the next time you are concerned that your child may have a food allergy.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.