Food Allergies In Kids—Plus, How To Prevent Them
The findings that made pediatricians recant.
Introducing your baby to new food is an exciting exploratory time—unless, of course, you have a picky eater. However, along with all the fun of messy dinners and discovering simple recipes comes the possibility that your little one will develop a food allergy. Food allergies in kids affect about 8% of American children—that’s about two students in each classroom, or 1 in every 13 kids. Fortunately for some, around 60-80% of children grow out of the most common food allergies by the time they’re 16.
Keep reading to learn all about food allergies in babies. You’ll learn all about the key culprits, what food allergy symptoms in babies look like, and what to do if your baby has an allergic reaction. Plus, how to help prevent food allergies from forming in the first place.
What Causes Food Allergies in Children?
Food allergies in kids happen when their body’s immune system misinterprets certain foods or ingredients as threats, which causes a variety of biological chemicals—including histamine—to be released into the bloodstream. This surge of chemicals repeatedly causes allergic reactions whenever the body comes into contact with the same food or ingredient.
An allergic reaction can range from mild symptoms to severe, life-threatening responses like anaphylaxis—a condition in which breathing passages narrow and blood pressure drops, sending a child’s body into shock. Milder symptoms, such as what looks like a food allergy rash in babies, may be an allergic reaction; however, they’re often something different—food intolerance.
What’s The Difference Between a Food Allergy & Food Intolerance?
The immune system is the driver behind allergic reactions, whereas food intolerances involve the improper functioning of other systems in the body. For example, impairments in digestion and metabolism are what cause lactose intolerance, sensitivity to gluten, and issues with processing complex carbohydrates. These intolerances can also cause problems metabolizing histamine, which can then cause itchy rashes and hives. Although food intolerances are not as dangerous as straight up food allergies, they can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as the aforementioned rashes and hives, as well as bloating, gas, or diarrhea.
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What Are Common Foods That Trigger Allergies In Babies & Kids?
The most common food allergies fall into eight categories: eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. Around 60-80% of kids with allergies to eggs and/or milk grow out of them by their mid to late teens—especially if they’re able to tolerate them in baked goods. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are a little more difficult to outgrow. Only around 20% of peanut allergies in babies fade with time. And even fewer children—just 14%— allergic to tree nuts grow out of it. While just about 4-5% of those with fish or shellfish allergies will eventually overcome them.
Kids are also at a higher risk of developing a lifelong food allergy if one of their parents or siblings has one. This is especially likely if your child is already showing allergic symptoms such as eczema, inflammation inside their nose (allergic rhinitis), or asthma. And, since testing for allergies with no symptoms isn’t standard pediatric practice, if you suspect your child has a food allergy, or is predisposed to one or more, be sure to speak to your pediatrician or an allergist.
Common Allergic Reactions To Look For In Babies
When a mild allergic reaction occurs in your child, their discomfort can be tough to bear. But if their reaction is severe, it can be downright terrifying. In the case of a child who is highly allergic, even a teeny-weeny amount of the food or drink they’re allergic to can set off a severe reaction.
Mild symptoms of one or more food allergies can cause dizziness, eczema, hives, a swollen face, or an itchy mouth. Stronger reactions can make it hard for them to breathe, or bring on stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Then, there’s the most severe reaction: anaphylaxis.
Signs of an anaphylactic response include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, cool, moist, or pale blue skin, and wheezing, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing. Their throat may swell, along with their face, lips, and tongue. They may also feel lightheaded, faint, or confused. And their pulse can be weak yet fast. These symptoms can come on fast, so if you see any arising in your child, seek immediate medical attention.
As if all the different reactions a food allergy can cause aren’t enough, some food allergies in babies don’t arise immediately— and they’re also harder to identify. Your kid may have been fine with, say, eggs one day, and allergic the next. Delayed allergies like these manifest differently than standard allergies. Common symptoms include severe eczema that just won’t clear, blood in their stool, colicky or fussy behavior, and even poor growth. In addition to it being harder to tell these types of allergies apart from other health conditions, they’re also more difficult to diagnose. So be sure to speak with your pediatrician or an allergist.
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What To Do If Your Baby Has an Allergic Reaction
If you think you’re seeing symptoms of an allergic reaction in your infant, immediately contact your doctor or call 911. And, since there’s no way to predict if or when a reaction may occur, be sure everyone else in their life—siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, and teachers—know what signs to look for and what to do if one occurs. If your kid had an allergic reaction in the past, keep an extra special eye out for any changes to their skin, breathing, poop, and digestion.
In the case that your child is diagnosed with an allergic reaction, be prepared for one to arise at all times. Ask your pediatrician what to keep on hand or in your diaper bag, such as an antihistamine or epipen—keep an eye on any expiration dates too. And be vigilant with food and drink labels. If you eat out at a restaurant or get takeout, be sure to ask if the food contains any ingredients your kid is allergic to, or if it will come into contact with any allergen-tainted kitchenware or utensils.
Mommy Pro Tip: You can find a handy food allergy form for babysitters and other caregivers with instructions on what to do in case of an emergency here. If you’re on the go, you can also fill out, print, and fold this food allergy card to keep in your wallet or diaper bag. Give it to the cook or chef when you’re getting meals and snacks outside your home.
How Can I Prevent My Child From Having Food Allergies?
Medical advice changes over the years, and what was once considered an effective approach has since been disproven. Starting in 2000, pediatricians advised against introducing potential allergens to babies to help prevent things like peanut allergies in babies from occurring. The standard became holding off on giving kids allergens like dairy, seafood, and wheat until they were 3 years old or so. Welp, times have changed—and so has the advice. As of 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics stopped recommending that approach.
Research has shown that delaying introduction of allergens had no effect on the development of food allergies in babies—in fact, the opposite is true. And it was something researchers stumbled upon. They noticed that Jewish children in the UK were 10x more likely to develop a food allergy than Jewish kids in Israel. Parents of children in the UK weren’t giving their kids allergens until they were older, whereas parents of children in Israel regularly gave their kids a corn puff snack made of peanut butter, called Bamba, in their first year. Minds. Blown.
So the researchers tested their theory, which turned out to be true. Nowadays, the USDA recommends going ahead and letting your kid try foods that contain allergens in their first 12 months, since exposure actually helps prevent the development of an allergy.
However, there are a few caveats. The first one is pretty obvious, but we’d be remiss not to relay it: If your child has a known or suspected allergy, hold off on giving them that food until your pediatrician or an allergist gives it the go-ahead. Also, be sure the food you give them is mushy or tiny, nothing that could be a choking hazard, like an actual peanut.
Know, too, that restricting your own diet when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding is not recommended either. There’s likely no effect on the potential for your kid to develop a food allergy. So, go ahead, and chow down on all your faves!
Next: Wanna bust more myths? Checkout our article on whether or not you need a feeding schedule.