From wheat to dairy to peanuts, food allergies in children have been on the rise in the West in recent years. Food allergies can cause serious and even deadly reactions, so it’s important to learn more about them.
What Is An Allergy?
A food allergy is when the immune system has an adverse reaction to specific proteins found in food. When the trigger food is consumed, the body reacts as if it is harmful, creating antibodies to fight the allergen. One of these antibodies is histamine. Histamine triggers allergic symptoms, like wheezing, throat tightness, hives, swelling, vomiting, and diarrhea, amongst others. In the most severe cases, it can cause anaphylaxis.
Milk, eggs, soya, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are the most common foods that cause allergies. The first five are the most common allergies in children.
What are the Causes?
The cases of food allergies in children have risen quite a bit in recent years with 5% of children in Ireland having an allergy according to the Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute. However, the good news is that most children outgrow their allergies by the time they are five. Allergies that are discovered, or persist, into adulthood are more likely to be permanent.
The rise in allergies has no direct cause but theories abound. Some believe that our improved hygiene is to blame. With fewer parasites to fight, the immune system turns against things that should be harmless like wheat and dairy. Vitamin D is another cited cause. As we spoke about in our Boosting Your Child’s Immunity post, we don’t get enough vitamin D here in Ireland which can result in a weaker immune system. This, again, can cause our immune system to target what shouldn’t be harmful.
Of course one of the main reasons why the number of allergies has increased is simply because we know more about them. Research has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, allowing us to become more aware of allergies and the environmental factors that can cause them. Thus we can identify them in children and adults causing case numbers to rise.
There is no curse for food allergies, only treatment. Treatment involves identifying the food that triggers the allergic reaction and then avoiding it. If you think your child has an allergy, take a visit to your GP. They’ll perform some tests, ranging from a skin prick test, to blood tests to exclusion diets and blinded challenge testing. You can read about these in detail on the HSE website.
Once the allergy is diagnosed, you and your child will need to figure out the best way to avoid coming into contact with the offending food. This is usually done through the elimination diet. Reading labels is the most important part of the elimination diet. Under European Union law, any pre-packed food or drink that is sold in Ireland must clearly state on the label if it contains the 14 known allergens.
You should also notify your child’s school and the parents of friends about the allergy. Food allergy bracelets are also available which explain how other people can help your child in an emergency. In some cases your child may need to carry medication with them, ranging from antihistamines which can be used for mild to moderate reactions, or adrenaline in the form of an EpiPen or Anapen. Adrenaline is used to manage the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
There is no sure fire to prevent your child from developing a food allergy but from the limited evidence available the following tips are recommended.
- Avoid smoking during pregnancy and make sure your baby is not exposed to secondhand smoke.
- Breastfeed for the first six months of life, if you can.
- Don’t exclude certain foods in your baby’s diet in an attempt to prevent an allergy. This can place them at risk of nutrients deficiencies.
- It is thought that introducing ‘trigger’ foods during weaning can lead to a healthy response and prevent allergies from developing. In fact, a study conducted by Leap saw an 80% reduction in peanut allergies in five-year-old children who regularly ate peanuts from the year they were born. The UK still recommends consulting with your GP before giving your baby peanuts.
We hope you found this helpful! Until next time.