The discovery of a food allergy in a child is pretty high on the long list of things parents worry about—and with good reason. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that between 1997 and 2007, cases of childhood food allergies rose 18 percent.
What's behind this rapid increase? While we don't fully know the cause, medical data suggest it could be related to a phenomenon known as the hygiene hypothesis, says Julia Bradsher, CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "Because children in our culture are exposed to fewer germs than their bodies are used to dealing with, the immune system is deprived of the full-time germ-fighting job they have to do, and [immune systems] misidentify food as harmful" she says.
After identifying food as harmful, the body reacts by trying to fight the food—resulting in an allergic reaction with symptoms ranging from relatively benign ones, like hives, rashes and tingling in the mouth, to terrifying ones, like swelling in the throat, difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness.
While a food allergy is caused by a misidentification by the immune system, food intolerance is a digestive problem. This is an important distinction. Because they could cause restricted breathing and loss of consciousness, food allergies are considered potentially life-threatening; food intolerances generally are not. For instance, one of the most common food intolerances is lactose intolerance, in which a person has trouble digesting the sugar in dairy products. It can result in abdominal cramps, bloating and diarrhea—not symptoms anybody would want their children ever want to experience, but not deadly.
Bradsher says it's common for children to outgrow some childhood food allergies—but some are lifelong. "Some of the allergies will go away, like milk and eggs," she says. "And the others will stay, like peanuts and tree nuts."
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."
Are you worried that your child has food allergies? Tell your story in the comments section below.