Discovering that your child has a food allergy can be daunting. However it is important to understand what a food allergy is and how to recognise them. Kerry Hayes finds out why food allergies develop and how to be prepared for them. 

Food allergies are common in children  and therefore, it is important to understand how a food allergy develops.

What is a food allergy? 

A food allergy occurs when your immune system sees a particular ingredient (we call it an allergen) as harmful or dangerous, and reacts accordingly by releasing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) in the body. This prompts the body to release histamines, which are the cause of the runny nose, itchy eyes or skin rash that is called an allergic reaction.

Allergy culprits and how they present

There are about eight foods that elicit 90% of allergic reactions: eggs, soy, milk, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. The reactions will vary in type and severity, depending on how allergic your child is, but common allergic reactions include:

  • Vomiting or tummy ache
  • Diarrhoea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Repetitive cough
  • Tingling in the mouth
  • Swelling of the tongue and closing of the throat;
  • Shortness of breath.

The most severe reaction to an allergy is called anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that hinders the body’s breathing and can send a child into shock.

How do you know your little one has a food allergy?

Your first stop should be to your doctor, who will probably start with a skin test or blood test to determine what your child is allergic to. To help your doctor, keep a food diary for a few weeks (unless symptoms are severe, in which case immediate medical attention should be sought).

The reason for the food diary is that children don’t only have an allergic reaction to food they try for the first time, it can take time for the immune system to build up enough of a response to cause a noticeable reaction. Therefore, while your child might not have an allergic reaction to a particular food the first time they eat it, they could develop an allergic reaction this particular item over time.

How do I treat it?

There is no cure for food allergies at this stage – but they can be outgrown, or managed. The starting point would be to educate yourself: learn about the ingredient/s your little one is allergic to, and make a habit of reading all labels before buying or feeding a certain food to your child.

Prevention is better than cure, as they say. Allergens can be tricky things, and while a particular food may not actually contain the allergen, it could be made in a factory that makes other foods that contain the allergen.

If you are at a restaurant, ask your waiter – or better yet, the chef himself – if a food you want to order for your child contains an ingredient they are allergic to. And if your visiting friends or family for a meal, make them aware of your child’s allergy beforehand so they can adjust the menu accordingly, or take something for your little one with you, so you are always prepared.

Be prepared

It is recommended that people with severe food allergies always carry auto-injectable epinephrine with them. If you have a child who needs one of these, ensure it goes everywhere with them and make certain that all your little one’s caregivers – teachers, other parents at playdates, and babysitters or au pairs – know exactly how to use it. It’s preferable that you show them in person.

Most importantly – stay calm in the face of an allergic reaction. Your child takes his or her cue from you, so taking in the situation (deciding whether it warrants a trip to the basin for some cool water, or a trip to the doctor), then taking action calmly, will make all the difference in your child getting through a reaction as smoothly as possible.
Luckily, most younger children will outgrow their food allergies between the ages of two and five.

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