In some cases, food allergies could not be more obvious. "Such as when a child eats, just for example, a peanut butter sandwich, and within the first bite they start vomiting," Bradsher says. "We've definitely heard of situations where the first time a parent realized their child has a food allergy is something that big."
Most allergies do not present themselves with such dramatic immediacy. "The first time the child eats a food they're allergic to, they may break out in hives," Bradsher says. "But you never know: The next time they eat the food, it could be worse."
The question of when to introduce foods is the subject of current research. The standard medical advice for the past few decades has been to hold off introduction of peanuts—which cause such severe allergic reactions—until children are at least 3 years old. A new theory now being tested suggests that by introducing peanuts earlier, a child's immune system may develop tolerance to peanuts.
If you think your child has an allergy, Bradsher says the first thing you should do is make an appointment to see your pediatrician or a board-certified allergist. She also suggests starting a food diary of what your child eats, any symptoms that follow and how long it takes for those symptoms to show up. Bring that diary with you to your appointment. The doctor will use that record, a physical exam, blood tests and possibly a skin-prick test to make a diagnosis. "They will determine if the allergy exists and help parents determine which foods [the child is allergic to] and what to expect going forward," she says.
If your child is one of the estimated 3 million children in America who do have food allergies, Bradsher says having an open and constant dialogue with your pediatrician about managing the allergy or allergies is important—but so is finding a community of parents who share your experiences. "The important thing," she says, "is to identify resources to learn how to live with food allergies."
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