Food allergies in infants and children are becoming more common in the United States, which can make it nerve-wracking for parents trying to introduce new foods to their babies.
About 8 percent of children now suffer from food allergies, largely because of two changes in our country: More foods are modified for factory farming, processing and mass distribution; and we’re too clean, so our immune systems fight things they don’t need to.
Given this increase in allergens, many parents want to know how they can keep their children safe — from the time such foods are introduced through adulthood.
What Are Food Allergies?
An allergic reaction is an immune system response in which chemicals like histamine are released in your child’s body. They can cause your child to experience various symptoms.
Before having a food allergy reaction, your child would have to be exposed to the food at least once. (This includes sensitization through breast milk.) The second time your child eats the food, the allergic symptoms can happen.
What Is Food Intolerance?
Food allergies sometimes are confused with food intolerance. The symptoms of food intolerance can include burping, indigestion, gas, loose stools, headaches or nervousness. But food intolerance doesn't involve the immune system. It happens because you can't digest a substance. Food intolerance can be unpleasant but is rarely dangerous.
Symptoms of Allergic Reactions
Allergic symptoms can begin within minutes after eating the food but usually within two hours. An allergic reaction can be mild or severe. Your child can have a severe reaction to a food even if their previous reactions were mild. Common symptoms include:
- Itching or swelling of the lips, tongue or mouth
- Itching or tightness in the throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Lowered blood pressure
About 90 percent of all food allergies are caused by the following eight foods:
- Tree nuts
Peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish commonly cause the most severe reactions and typically are allergies that children do not outgrow. Because of this, the U.S. government has passed regulations to protect its residents, including requiring manufacturers to list these ingredients clearly on food labels. Most recently, the United States named sesame as the ninth major food allergen.
When To Introduce Allergens to Your Baby
For many years, healthcare providers recommended delaying the introduction of potentially allergenic foods to infants who are at high risk. (An infant at high risk for developing an allergy usually has a parent or sibling with an allergic condition, such as eczema, a milk protein allergy, asthma or allergic rhinitis.) But that changed in 2008 when the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its previous recommendation. The AAP stated that although solid foods should not be introduced before 4 to 6 months of age, there was no convincing evidence that delaying their introduction beyond this age protected against allergies.
More than a decade later, the AAP endorsed a report based on the Learning Early About Peanut (LEAP) allergy trial that concluded early introduction of infant-safe forms of peanuts reduces the risk of a peanut allergy.
Go Slowly To See How Baby Reacts
The key to seeing if your baby can tolerate foods that are common allergens is to go slowly. Introduce foods one at a time every few days to determine how your baby reacts to each new food. Use small amounts of food and build up to a full serving. Don’t give up if your baby doesn’t like a food. Continue to feed consistently each day as long as your baby does not have any reactions.
Treatment for Food Allergies
If your child has a food allergy, you will need to develop an allergy action plan with your child’s doctor. It will help you prepare for, recognize and treat an allergic reaction. You should share the plan with relatives, school officials, coaches and other adults involved in your child’s life.
Your child should always have two epinephrine auto-injectors nearby in case of a severe reaction. If your child starts having serious allergic symptoms, like trouble breathing or throat tightness, use the epinephrine auto-injector immediately. Also use it right away if symptoms involve two different parts of the body, like hives with vomiting. Then call 911 so your child can go to the emergency room in an ambulance under medical supervision for further treatment.
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