It seems to be increasingly common that your kids, or the children of someone you know, may have food allergies. Here we talk to LUCY BROWN, paediatric nurse, mum of two, and Head of Clinical Leadership and Engagement at Bupa UK about food allergies in kids – what they are, what are the symptoms, and what you can do.
What is a food allergy?
If your child has a food allergy, it means their body’s immune system reacts differently to certain foods. Although the food may be safe to eat, the body wrongly sees some proteins in the food as something harmful and produces an antibody in response.
Food allergies in children are quite common – increasingly so. (One theory for this rise is that children aren’t as exposed to bugs as their parents once were, and so their immune system doesn’t get the chance to develop as well.) It’s estimated that around five in every 100 children may have one.
Your child may be more likely to develop a food allergy if:
- there’s a family history of food allergies;
- they have other allergies like hay fever;
- they have other medical conditions such as eczema or asthma.
What are the symptoms of food allergies in kids?
Children react in different ways, and some symptoms are more severe than others, but there are some classic symptoms to watch for:
- A runny, blocked or itchy nose.
- Sore, red, swollen or itchy eyes.
- Itchy or swollen lips, mouth, tongue and throat.
- Finding it harder to breathe or talk.
- Diarrhoea, feeling sick or vomiting.
- Wheezing, a cough, noisy breathing, or shortness of breath.
- A skin reaction, for example hives (itchy bumps on your skin), a rash or flushed skin.
- Feeling bloated (swollen abdomen).
What should I do if I suspect my child has a food allergy?
First, avoid giving them the food you think caused it; they also shouldn’t have any similar foods (for example, nuts if you think a peanut caused the reaction). Record their symptoms for the next 24 hours and follow up by keeping a food and symptoms diary for at least two weeks. This can help to identify if symptoms are triggered by certain foods. Your GP will be able to review the diary in more detail and may decide to arrange further tests.
If at any point your child has a severe reaction, such as finding it hard to breathe, wheezing or their mouth or lips begin to swell, then seek medical attention immediately.
How can my child be tested for a food allergy?
Your GP may refer your child to a specialist who can do a simple blood test or a skin-prick test for the IgE antibody that’s responsible for triggering an allergic reaction. If there’s a clear history of reaction to an obvious food trigger, a blood test can be useful to confirm a diagnosis. Unfortunately, this test can be unreliable, so it’s only useful if your child has very clear symptoms.
If the diagnosis is unclear, the doctor may arrange for a skin-prick test, where small amounts of the suspected allergen are placed on your child’s skin. Their skin is then pricked with a needle and any reaction is monitored for the next 15 to 20 minutes.
Will my child grow out of their food allergy?
Some mild food allergies can resolve themselves by school age as a child’s digestive system develops – allergies to cow’s milk, wheat, soya or eggs, for example. However, if you’re thinking of reintroducing trigger foods into your child’s diet, it’s important to ask and follow the advice of a healthcare professional or qualified dietitian first.
If your child has a more severe food allergy, such as nuts or shellfish, they’re unlikely to outgrow this.
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