Food Allergies 101
Food allergies, especially among children, are on the rise. According to FoodAllergy.org, one in 13 children under 18 (the equivalent of two children per classroom) suffers from food allergies. Most families today find themselves affected, whether they have a child who suffers from allergies or know someone who does. Learning about possible causes, how to prevent and treat reactions and how to safely and fairly interact with kids who have food allergies are important.
There is still no commonly accepted cause of food allergies. Scientific studies have suggested catalysts ranging from genetics to environmental exposure to gut bacteria. Dr. Zach D. Jacobs, a Kansas City partner in the Center for Allergy and Immunology, believes that “alterations in the development of something called the gut microbiome, and how it interacts with the developing immune system and food proteins, is probably a main cause of food allergy. The gut microbiome is the ‘good bacteria’ in someone’s intestines. There is growing evidence that children with altered gut microbiomes, possibly due to c-section, antibiotic courses, certain types of infections or anti-reflux medications, combined with a certain genetic predisposition, are at higher risk for the development of food allergies.”
Another common theory is that parents are waiting too long to expose their children to possible allergens, such as peanuts, and this is causing an increase in allergic reactions. Jacobs agrees with this theory and advises parents to expose their babies to nut powders or smooth nut butters early on (as peanuts themselves are choking hazards).
Whatever the true cause, if you find yourself with a child who is allergic to certain foods, you know it is not an easy path. A child’s allergic reaction can range from mild (such as itchiness) to severe (anaphylaxis). Fortunately, many allergies such as those to milk, eggs and soy, are usually temporary, and children tend to grow out of them. Nut and shellfish allergies, however, are usually lifelong.
Milder reactions often can be treated with topical steroid creams and Benadryl. Severe reactions, such as anaphylaxis, require the use of an epinephrine auto-injector (Epi-Pen) and a trip to the emergency room.
Because these reactions can be so severe, children with allergies—as well as adult caregivers—must know their reaction/emergency care plan. Children who have a history or potential for anaphylaxis should wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace and have an Epi-Pen with them at all times. Watch for signs of a reaction, such as rashes, wheezing and/or tightness in the child’s throat, and respond immediately. After an Epi-Pen has been administered, call 911 and get the child to the ER immediately.
Food allergies can cause children a great deal of anxiety and social difficulty. Youngsters often are ostracized and find themselves alone, whether for protection or from being bullied or ignored by other children. To help them lead normal lives, Dr. Jacobs offers oral immunotherapy to children with allergies. This method is somewhat new and not offered by all allergists, but Dr. Jacobs believes wholeheartedly that it helps children “desensitize to the allergen in question” and go on to live normal lives, where they can participate safely in all activities, with all other children.
Parents and friends can take steps to help allergy-sufferers feel included. If you are hosting a child with food allergies in your home, it would help him and his parents tremendously if you avoid serving the food he is allergic to. Parents also greatly appreciate if you reach out to them, explaining that you are aware of their child’s allergies and that you intend to ensure a safe, allergy-free environment for their son or daughter. This way the parents can feel comfortable bringing the child to your home, and the child will more likely enjoy himself, which is what all children deserve.
Olathe mom Karen Johnson has three children, ages 6, 4 and 2. She writes at The21stCenturySAHM.com.
True or False Quiz: Test Your Allergy IQ!
- If a child is administered an Epi-Pen, he or she should still go to the hospital immediately after. (TRUE)
- Children with allergies are more likely to be ostracized or bullied. (TRUE)
- On average, three to four kids per classroom have food allergies. (FALSE)
- Most kids have milk and egg allergies for life. (FALSE)
- The medical community is still not completely sure what causes food allergies. (TRUE)