Recognising & Managing Food Allergies
The significant rise in allergies over the last few decades is something of a medical mystery; rewind the clock back thirty years and food allergies were relatively unusual, but nowadays as many as 8% of all children will suffer a food allergy of some sort in early childhood.
As well as the dramatic increase in those suffering food allergies, there has also been a dramatic increase in allergic conditions including hay fever, asthma and eczema.
The most widely accepted explanation for this, is that high standards of cleanliness in the Western world have led to a situation where immune systems have such a small quantity of viruses and bacteria to cope with, that they begin to respond inappropriately by overreacting to various substances.
There are several steps that parents and carers can take to reduce the likelihood of a child developing a food allergy in the first place, but knowing how to recognise an allergy of this sort will help you to respond and manage this situation effectively, should it ever arise.
What Is A Food Allergy?
In the UK, the most common food allergies relate to eggs, milk and nuts. Other allergens include wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to harmless food proteins by triggering the release of a natural substance in the body called histamine. This release of histamine creates the classic allergy symptoms. Sufferers may experience a rash, itching or flushing, caused by dilation of the blood vessels, or wheezing, coughing and a runny nose, caused by an increase in mucus production.
Histamine is naturally present in a variety of our body tissues and therefore its release in the body can result in a range of symptoms. In an acute allergic reaction anaphylaxis can occur. In this situation, the immune system releases a flood of chemicals that cause a drop in blood pressure and the narrowing of airways. This type of allergic reaction is extremely serious as it can be potentially life threatening.
Recognising The Signs Of A Food Allergy
If other members of the family suffer with allergies or your baby has eczema, there is an increased likelihood that your baby will experience a food allergy. In most instances, an immediate reaction to a certain type of food will make it easy for you to recognise the signs. Typical reactions include:
- Facial swelling
- Itchy rash
- Nausea or Vomiting
- Runny nose
- Mild swelling
- Watery eyes
In an acute allergic reaction, a child may experience:
- Breathing difficulties
In this situation, you must phone for an ambulance immediately.
With some food allergies, the reaction is less immediate and therefore it can be slightly more difficult to make a connection and recognise the signs. A delayed reaction could result in:
- Diarrhoea & Constipation
- Stomach pain
The difficulty of course, is that these symptoms could be caused by many other factors in childhood. If you suspect that a food allergy may be the root cause of your child’s symptoms, discuss your concerns with your child’s paediatrician and obtain their advice and if in any doubt then eliminate the food item from your child’s diet until the all clear is given. Keeping an accurate food diary, detailing your child’s diet is a useful way to keep track of any emerging patterns and can help you and your doctor to pinpoint potential triggers to the reactions your child is experiencing.
Testing For A Food Allergy
Children who experience an immediate reaction to certain food groups can often be tested successfully with a skin prick test or blood test; in delayed reactions, it is usually a case of excluding suspected food groups to determine whether an allergy is present, which can be a time consuming process.
Managing A Food Allergy
The diagnosis of a food allergy in childhood can have a significant impact on your family as making sure your child does not come into contact with a particular food at home, at school, on special occasions, play dates and so on takes a great deal of organisation and effort.
In addition to making sure that your child is not exposed to foods that cause a reaction, in some cases where a child is allergic to milk, or multiple food groups it can be harder work to ensure that your child obtains all of the nutrition they need to develop and grow healthily.
Treatments & Cures
With an excellent routine in place food allergies are managed effectively, through avoidance, or medications including antihistamines, inhalers and adrenaline treatment for emergencies.
Thankfully, the majority of food allergies are outgrown by the time a child reaches the age of five.
Although there are no immediate cures on the horizon, with a growing awareness of this issue and a greater understanding of prevention, i.e. waiting until babies digestive system has matured at six months before introducing solids, hopefully we will see a reduction of allergies in our future generations.
If you’re at all concerned about your children developing a food allergy then get in touch with one of our consultants and they’ll be able to help answer your questions and offer practical advice.