Dr Mark Rosenthal

MD MB ChB FRCP FRCPCH BSc

Consultant in Paediatric Respiratory Medicine

also specialist in Food Allergies & Disorders of Sleep

A | A | A

T: 0207 351 8832

E: s.harvey@rbht.nhs.uk

A:The Royal Brompton Hospital, London, SW3 6NP

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Identifying a food allergy in an adult can be tough enough, so it can be very tricky when the one who’s affected isn’t even able to tell you what they’re feeling.

children with food allergies

What is a Food Allergy?

An allergic response happens when our immune systems react to something that they shouldn’t. The immune system is supposed to recognise threats such as germs so that it can protect us. Sometimes it gets confused and responds to something that we eat or come in contact with. The immune system tries to protect us by creating inflammation and releasing a chemical called histamine. When the immune system is responding to a real threat, this can help to eliminate the germs. However, when the trigger is a harmless food protein, it can lead to symptoms such as hives and swelling.

About 1 in 8 children under the age of three have some kind of food allergy. The most common triggers of food allergies in babies and infants are:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish

Although it’s impossible to tell if your baby will develop an allergy, it is more likely if there are other members of the family who have food allergies. Having a history of eczema or asthma in your family can also mean that your child is more likely to develop a food allergy. Babies who are already affected by eczema are also more likely to have food allergies. All of these conditions are closely linked as they’re associated with the immune system.

The good news about childhood allergies is that many children will grow out of them. Your baby’s immune system is still developing, so it may learn to ignore the foods that are triggering the allergic response. However, it’s still important to know when your baby has a food allergy so that you can take steps to protect them.

Symptoms of Food Allergies in Babies

The symptoms of a food allergy can be mild or severe. They may also develop suddenly, as soon as your baby eats the food, or appear more gradually.

If your child has an immediate allergic reaction after eating a particular food then you might notice:

  • Flushing or hives (a red, itchy rash), especially around the mouth and eyes
  • A runny nose, blocked nose or sneezing
  • Watering eyes
  • Swelling, usually around the lips or eyes
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea

In some children, the immediate allergic reaction can be so severe that it could interfere with breathing. If you notice any of the following signs then you should call an ambulance:

  • Wheezing, coughing or breathing problems (which can appear like an asthma attack)
  • Swelling of the tongue and throat that is making it hard for your child to breathe
  • Dizziness, confusion or loss of consciousness

A severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis can be life-threatening if it isn’t treated right away. However, most children with food allergies won’t ever experience anaphylaxis. The symptoms are usually milder. In fact, in some cases they can be so mild that are easily missed. This is particularly true when the symptoms are delayed.

Sometimes the symptoms of a food allergy aren’t obvious or immediate. Your child could be allergic to something they are eating if:

  • Constipation or diarrhoea that lasts for a long time, happens frequently, or isn’t associated with other symptoms of infection (such as a fever)
  • Swelling or bloating of your baby’s tummy
  • Reflux (in babies this usually appears as throwing up small amounts without straining to do so)
  • Stomach pain, which might make your baby touch their chest or stomach, or pull their knees up
  • Often crying or seeming distressed for no apparent reason
  • Not growing as well as expected, even when he or she is eating plenty
  • Eczema can be caused by a food allergy rather than something that comes in contact with your baby’s skin. This is especially common with milk allergies.

Identifying the causes of delayed allergic reactions can be harder as there is no obvious connection between a specific food and the onset of the symptoms. There are also other conditions that could be responsible for your child’s symptoms, so it’s important to get an expert opinion if you notice any of these signs in your baby.

What to Do Next?

If you think that your child might have a food allergy, then it is important to see a doctor. Diagnosing food allergies by yourself is difficult. You might misidentify the food that is causing the allergy or even mistake symptoms of a completely different condition for an allergy. The doctor can perform tests (such as a skin prick test) to identify the specific food that is responsible for your child’s allergy.

Once the food allergy has been identified, you will need to cut the trigger out of your child’s diet to prevent the symptoms. In some cases, you might have to adjust your own diet if you are breastfeeding or to change the formula you are using for bottle feeding.

It’s important to get medical advice before cutting any foods out of your child’s diet, especially when they are very young. Babies bodies are growing quickly, which means that they need to get lots of different nutrients. If your doctor confirms that your child does have an allergy then they’ll be able to tell you how to cut the triggers out while still providing a balanced diet.

If your child has a severe allergy that could cause anaphylaxis, you may also need to learn how to use an epi pen or auto-injector. This is a special instrument that can deliver a shot of medication to stop a severe allergic reaction. It could save your child’s life if they accidentally come in contact with an allergen and their breathing is affected.

Finding out that your child has an allergy can be worrying, but it’s important to remember that many childhood allergies will disappear over time. Even if the allergy doesn’t go away, your child can still stay safe while enjoying good, healthy food as long as they take the right precautions.

Do you have any advice on feeding children with food allergies?

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