If you see the following symptoms, it may indicate a food
allergy. If several areas of the body are affected, the reaction
may be severe or even life-threatening. Called anaphylaxis, it
requires immediate medical attention.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics
Lucy Simmons was enjoying a jar of baby food when her parents
noticed something very wrong.
"My daughter's face swelled up, she got hives and she became
very ill," says her mom, Nicole Simmons of Orland Park. Simmons and
her husband Sean rushed their 9-month-old to the emergency room
where they received a life-changing diagnosis: severe allergies to
several common foods, including dairy, peanut, shellfish, sesame
"Younger kids have the largest proportion of new food allergy
diagnosis," says Dr. Jacqueline Pongracic, head of Allergy and
Immunology at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Any food can cause an allergic reaction, but most food allergies
are caused by cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as
walnuts, pistachios, pecans and cashews), soy, wheat, fish and
A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found that 1 in 12
children has a food allergy, with nearly 40 percent of those
diagnosed reporting severe allergic reactions or anaphylaxis.
Food allergies in younger children can be especially scary to
parents, since adequate nutrition is vital to a baby's growth and
development. To make matters even more complicated, other
conditions may mimic food allergies. So how do you know what's a
real food allergy and what isn't?
"Key symptoms of a food allergy reaction are hives, swelling of
the face and breathing problems such as wheezing," Pongracic
While severe allergic reaction symptoms are relatively easy to
spot (distinctive facial swelling and hives), gastrointestinal
issues may leave parents confused.
Tummy troubles can sometimes indicate food allergies, but more
common reasons are an immature digestive system, reflux, diarrhea
due to an overload of sugary fruit juice and common viruses.
One common childhood condition that may have a food allergy
correlation: eczema. This skin condition, characterized by rashes,
redness and itchiness, "is one of the first allergy indicators,"
Getting answers about food allergies should begin with a visit
to your child's pediatrician, who can offer an alternative formula
and guidelines on introducing new foods. They also can prescribe an
EpiPen for emergencies.
Allergy testing is an important piece of the food allergy
puzzle, but tests don't always tell the whole story.
"Allergic reactions and anaphylaxis to specific foods are
obvious indicators; blood tests and skin tests alone do not
determine food allergy," Pongracic says. "When testing is done, it
should be as specific as possible."
She especially cautions about "panel" testing in which the child
is tested for a large number of foods all at once, as these tests
may result in a high number of false positives.
The guidelines on when and what foods to introduce to babies has
been controversial in the last few years, but recent studies by the
American Academy of Pediatrics show no relation between introducing
foods before the first birthday and allergic reactions to them.
(The AAP does recommend holding off on peanut butter or nuts for
the first year because of choking hazards.)
Experts recommend giving your baby one new food at a time and
waiting at least two to three days before starting another. After
each new food, watch for any allergic reactions. If any of these
occur, stop using the new food and consult with your child's
If your child's older sibling has a food allergy or if allergies
run in the family, speak to your doctor before offering your baby a
possibly allergenic food. For example, a study showed that siblings
of kids with a peanut allergy are seven times as likely to have a
peanut allergy themselves.
If your baby receives a food allergy diagnosis, meeting your
child's nutritional needs can be difficult.
"You have to think outside the box, but luckily there are a lot
more allergy-friendly foods these days," Nicole Simmons says.
If you get really stuck, working with a nutritionist can
Simmons says her daughter's allergy-free diet presents
challenges, but it also provides an unexpected silver lining:
"Fruits and vegetables are my daughter's favorite foods-my
nephew without allergies won't even touch them," she says.
Jenny Kales is a La Grange Park freelance writer and mother of two. She also writes a food allergy parenting blog, The Nut-Free Mom at nut-freemom.com.
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