My own children do not have food allergies, but my husband is deathly allergic to wasps (and when I say deathly I don't mean "deathly as in it irritates him, I mean 2 minutes after stung, pass out, epinephrine, helicopter, ER visit, $20,000 deathly!) Oh, and the doctor always likes to remind us, he could die....aren't you all glad I shared that! On to what I was supposed to originally be talking about...
As a dietitian in the school system, food allergies have become one of my biggest jobs. I have been in my current position for 4 years and each year, the number of children with food allergies continues to skyrocket. And it's scary. We want to make sure that our children are safe no matter where they are, and that includes eating meals in the lunchroom, the classroom, and field trips. So, I do a lot of running around looking for substitutions for foods that these children cannot have, and it has taught me a lot! I will be doing a Food Allergy series over the next few days and will go through each individual food allergy, what it entails, and some ideas of foods to eat instead. I'm not a doctor, so I'm not going into the medical side of this, so please always listen to what your doctor recommends!
When I was younger and in school, I rarely heard of a food allergy. Sometimes milk, maybe eggs, very few peanuts. Well, now along with milk and eggs, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and peanuts are among some of the most common foods that cause allergies.
What is a Food Allergy?
With a food allergy, the body reacts as though that particular food product is harmful. As a result, the body's immune system creates antibodies to fight the food allergen, the substance in the food that triggers the allergy.
The next time a person comes in contact with that food by touching or eating it or inhaling its particles, the body releases chemicals, including one called histamine, to "protect" itself. These chemicals trigger allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or cardiovascular system. These symptoms might include a runny nose; an itchy skin rash; a tingling in the tongue, lips, or throat; swelling; abdominal pain; or wheezing.
Now food allergies and food intolerance are not the same, but people often confuse them because they have similar symptoms. The symptoms of food intolerance can include burping, indigestion, gas, loose stools, headaches, nervousness, or a feeling of being "flushed." But food intolerance:
doesn't involve the immune system
can be caused by a person's inability to digest certain substances, such as lactose
can be unpleasant but is rarely dangerous
Think lactose intolerance - you drink it, it doesn't agree with you, but it isn't going to send you to the hospital...just the bathroom!
According to the Food Allergy Research and Education network (FARE), 1 in every 13 children in the United States under age 18 have food allergies. They are less common in adults but, overall, food allergies affect nearly 15 million people in the United States.
What are Common Food Allergens?
A child could be allergic to any food, but these eight common allergens account for 90% of all reactions in kids:
tree nuts (such as walnuts and cashews)
shellfish (such as shrimp)
In general, most kids with food allergies outgrow them. Research shows that of those who are allergic to milk, about 80% will eventually outgrow the allergy. About two-thirds with allergies to eggs and about 80% with a wheat or soy allergy will outgrow those by the time they're 5 years old. But, my experience in the school system is telling me something completely different. They may be outgrowing them, but they continue to stay on these special diets because they are either used to eating those foods, or they are scared that they may have a reaction again.
Other food allergies are harder to outgrow. Only about 20% of people with allergies to peanuts and about 10% of those allergic to tree nuts outgrow the allergies. Fish and shellfish allergies usually develop later in life and are even more rarely outgrown.
What Kind of Reactions Can You Have From a Food Allergy?
Food allergy reactions can vary from person to person. Some can be very mild and only involve one part of the body, like hives on the skin. Others can be more severe and involve more than one part of the body. Reactions can happen within a few minutes or up to a few hours after contact with the food.
Food allergy reactions can affect any of the four following areas of the body:
skin: itchy red bumps (hives); eczema; redness and swelling of the face or extremities; itching and swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth (skin reactions are the most common type of reaction)
gastrointestinal tract: abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
respiratory tract: runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath
cardiovascular system: lightheadedness or fainting
A serious allergic reaction with widespread effects on the body is known as anaphylaxis. This sudden, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction involves two or more of the body areas listed above. There also can be swelling of the airway, serious difficulty with breathing, a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and in some cases, even death (enter Chad Coburn and a wasp).
How are food allergies diagnosed?
This is the part where you see your doctor. If you think that your child has a food allergy, you should make an appointment with an allergist. The allergist will do test to determine if and what your child is allergic to and then make a treatment plan from there.
How Do You Treat a Food Allergy?
No medication can cure food allergies, so treatment usually means avoiding the allergen and all the foods that contain it.
You'll need to read food labels so that you can avoid the allergen. A new food labeling law, passed in 2006, states that the makers of packaged foods are required to clearly state, in or near the ingredient lists, whether the product contains milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soy. Often times this is listed at the end of the ingredients list and is sometimes in bold print.
Although there's no cure for food allergies, medications can treat both minor and severe symptoms. Antihistamines might be used to treat symptoms such as hives, runny nose, or abdominal pain associated with an allergic reaction.
Epinephrine is sometimes used to treat severe allergic reactions, or anaphylaxis. This would be prescribed by your doctor and you and all of your child's caregivers would need to be trained on how to administer it.
I know this is a lot of information, but it is common, and so important. As I continue in my career, I find that these children don't have just one of these food allergies, but multiple allergies. Milk and soy, or wheat and milk. It is very difficult to know what you can and cannot feed your child and over the next few days I am going to try to help lift some of that burden and give you some tips! And if you ever have any questions, always feel free to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*And, I must say again, I am not a doctor, so please always follow your physicians orders.