True food allergies affect about 2 percent of adults and about 6 percent of children. These reactions are triggered by the immune system, causing symptoms that can be mild to life-threatening. This is not to be confused with food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, which is more bothersome than it is serious.
An estimated 3 million children in the United States have food allergies, with as many as 200 deaths reported yearly. The impact of these disorders is felt in day care, school and camp settings — areas that are all integral to a child’s life.
The most common allergies in childhood are to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy. Peanut allergy is of particular concern, because of the frequency of true life-threatening reactions.
Because the incidence of food allergies seems to be on the rise, it is increasingly important that everyone, including families, friends, neighbors, schools and restaurants, strive to understand the significance of food allergies.
Risk factors for food allergies include family history and age, with allergies being most common in children. A child with one allergic parent has a 50 percent chance of having a food allergy, which rises to a 75 percent chance if both parents have food allergies.
Some experts say food allergies can be prevented in the first place, especially for at-risk children, through the following means:
*Breast feeding, if possible, for at least the first 6 months of life.
*Not offering solid food until age 6 months or older.
*Avoiding cow’s milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts and fish until after the first year of life.
Most food allergies improve with age, with the exceptions of allergies to nuts and shellfish, which can continue into late adulthood.
Obviously, the best way to prevent a serious allergic reaction to a particular food is to avoid it. For many reasons, this is not always possible, especially because prepared food often has unknown ingredients in it.
Symptoms of a food allergy may occur within minutes to hours after eating. The most common, less-serious symptoms of a true food allergy that requires urgent treatment are as follows:
*Tingling in the mouth
*Itching or hives
*Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
*Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting
The following are symptoms of a more severe, life-threatening reaction that needs immediate emergency treatment:
*Extreme difficulty breathing or swallowing
*Dizziness, light-headedness or fainting
If you or someone with you has serious difficulty with any of the above symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately and have an emergency or paramedic provider offer prompt life-saving treatment, which involves a shot of epinephrine (adrenaline) and transportation to an emergency room.
Quite commonly, a doctor has prescribed to the allergic individual an EpiPen, with which the allergic person can immediately self-inject a dose of epinephrine and thereby save his or her own life.
For the family of an allergic child, sending the child to day care, school or even a friend’s birthday party can be risky. They must trust that others will be able and willing to help the child avoid contact with the problematic food. Notifying all the proper authorities and caregivers in your child’s life of their allergies is imperative in helping to keep them risk free.
It is important that the general population, and particularly those who care for children, be aware of and protective of the food allergic child.