Most children will outgrow food allergies in time, particularly if they’re not severe. However, allergies can interfere with your child’s ability to sleep well, play normally, and function at school.
Food allergies are common in children, but they can be managed. Most of the allergies are to cow’s milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and wheat.
Most serious food allergies start in infancy and early childhood. Food allergies are more common among children from families where other members suffer from allergies. Babies suffering from eczema are also more prone to develop food allergies.
In most cases, the allergy affects the skin, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Dr Sarah Karabus, a Cape Town paediatrician and allergologist, points out the immediate signs – reactions that usually occur within minutes of eating the particular food. However, in some instances, these can sometimes take up to two hours to show. “The most common symptoms would be hives or wheals (an extremely itchy red rash),” says Karabus. “With more severe reactions, there may be diarrhoea and vomiting.” In extreme cases, breathing problems, such as coughing, wheezing, voice changes or anaphylaxis, may be present.
Karabus warns against confusing food allergies with food intolerance. “Food intolerance doesn’t involve the immune system,” she says. “This means no antibodies develop against the food as they would with an allergy.” Food intolerance is rarely life-threatening.
“The first step is to give the child an antihistamine,” says Karabus. “If the reaction is severe, adrenaline may be injected into the thigh.” Then, take the child to the closest emergency room.
Educate the family, the child if old enough, as well as all caregivers and school staff. “Teach them how to read food labels so that they can determine which foods are likely to contain a particular ingredient,” says Karabus.
Make sure that emergency medication is always be available, even at school. Ask your healthcare practitioner for a form that gives teachers written permission to act.
Karabus offers the following advice:
- Children who are allergic to a food from a major group, such as milk, require supplements to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
- Consult a dietician trained in the management of childhood food allergies.
- Because children often outgrow certain food allergies, let your paediatrician or allergologist retest your child every few months so. This helps determine if that food can be reintroduced into the diet.
- Children rarely outgrow a fish allergy.
- Only 20% of children will outgrow a peanut allergy.