Food allergies are a nuisance for some people and a life-threatening condition for others. Knowing what causes them and how they work can help you and your family stay safe.
About 15 million Americans have food allergies, which are far more prevalent among children than in adults. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about 30 percent of kids with food allergies have more than one, which can further complicate matters. Although many children with food allergies grow out of them before puberty, some face a lifelong battle that requires daily diligence in avoiding certain foods.
Allergies of all types run in families, so as a parent, waiting to see if food allergies develop in your child can be nerve-wracking. If you’ve had a restrictive diet for a long time because of your own allergies, you’re familiar with the accompanying challenges. What’s more, you can still develop new ones at any time.
Here’s a bit more on how food allergies work, the best ways to prevent them in your children, and how to keep you and your family safe.
What to know about food allergies:
How they work
When you’re allergic to a specific food, your immune system responds to it as though it’s a dangerous invader assaulting your body. Typically, this reaction occurs due to a naturally occurring protein in whatever food doesn’t agree with your immune system. To respond, your system begins creating antibodies before you even show symptoms.
When you eat a food that contains an allergen and your body starts to digest it, these antibodies attack those proteins, causing an allergic reaction within minutes. A food allergy is different from a food sensitivity, but many people confuse the two. A sensitivity or intolerance does not involve an immune-system reaction.
Though food allergies often develop in early childhood, there are some adults who get them starting in their 50s or later. The eight most common food allergens represent 90 percent of all food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
The most common food allergies are:
● Tree nuts, like pecans or walnuts
● Fish without shells
Some of those may seem similar, such as peanuts and tree nuts, or fish and shellfish. However, you can be allergic to peanuts and not pecans because the allergy-causing protein is different in each. Even so, people with one food allergy are more likely to develop a new one than those with no food allergies.
Preventing food allergies
Although many women restrict their diets during pregnancy and breastfeeding in hopes of preventing allergies in their children, there’s a good chance that doesn’t work. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), “Most recent information indicates there is no significant allergy prevention benefit to your baby if you avoid highly allergenic foods during this time.”
Also, according to the academy, breast milk strengthens an infant’s immune system and breastfeeding for the first six months of life may reduce the risk for developing allergies later. If you don’t breastfeed your children, the group recommends using hypoallergenic hydrolyzed infant formula rather than soy or cow’s milk formulas to avoid allergies.
It is important to consult a pediatrician before you first feed your child solid foods if you, the baby’s other parent or an older sibling has a food allergy. Still, any child can develop food allergies. When introducing your baby to foods, give him or her single-ingredient foods one at a time, with a new one every three to five days, starting around 6 months of age, the AAAAI recommends.
But don’t ban your kids from potential allergens altogether, says Lori Zanini, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles. “Delaying exposure to egg, dairy, peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish could potentially increase your infant's risk of developing a food allergy,” she explains.
Keeping kids with allergies safe
Symptoms of food allergies can vary but commonly include wheezing, swelling of the throat and face, itching, and abdominal symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea. If you or your child develops sudden symptoms after eating any food, it’s important to see a doctor right away — your best bet is an urgent care facility or emergency room.
If you or your child does have a new food allergy, the doctor should help you understand how to avoid the food causing it, as common food allergens are frequently found in many dishes. Doctors often refer their patients with allergies to a registered dietitian, like Zanini, who can help them develop a safe new diet.
“Currently there is no cure for allergies or medications to prevent reactions,” Zanini says. She works with clients to help them develop family meal plans, ask the right questions at restaurants, and learn how to properly read food labels.
But it’s not always a lifelong commitment. Food allergies can begin at any age, but young children are more likely to outgrow allergies to eggs, milk and soy than peanuts, tree nuts and seafood, Zanini says. “Most young children outgrow food allergies within three to five years, and older children and adults commonly lose their allergies over time,” she adds.
If you or your child has a food allergy that hasn’t been evaluated in a while, you can be easily tested by an allergist to see if you still need to be avoiding that food.