Can food allergies in kids be prevented?

April 13, 2017 | by Uzma Muneer, D.O.
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

Every 3 minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the ER. Food allergies in kids are on the rise, and experts can’t figure out why.

A food allergy is a serious medical condition that affects about 1 in 13 children in the United States today —that’s roughly two in every classroom. A food allergy can cause a severe, life-threatening reaction if an allergic child eats certain foods.

Highly allergenic foods include: cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction.

Many parents want to know if there is any way to delay or prevent allergies from developing. It has long been known that allergies tend to run in families. Your child’s risk of developing a food allergy increases if a sibling, or one or both parents, have a food allergy, asthma, eczema or other allergic condition.

In the past, moms were told to hold off introducing certain foods to their children to reduce the chance of food allergies. Now, experts are saying early exposure to certain foods may actually protect children. This is a complete reversal of the guidelines of a decade ago.

The new guidelines by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAAI) say the best way to prevent food allergies is to expose babies to more foods early, rather than waiting.

It was also thought that if you avoided highly allergenic foods during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, you could reduce your child’s chance of developing allergies. Now, the opposite holds true. Diet restrictions are no longer recommended for most pregnant and breastfeeding women. In fact, one 2013 study found that pregnant women who ate peanuts were less likely to have kids with nut allergies.

So what are the latest recommendations?

  • Experts recommend exclusive breastfeeding until your baby is 4-6 months of age. Research suggest breastfeeding may actually delay or prevent the incidence of atopic dermatitis, early onset of wheezing, and milk allergy.
  • When your baby is between 4-6 months old and ready for solid foods, single-ingredient infant foods, such as fruits, vegetables and rice or oat cereal, may be gradually introduced one at a time, every few days. This process helps you identify and eliminate any food that may cause an allergic reaction.
  • After these less-allergenic foods have been tolerated by your baby, gradually start to introduce more allergenic foods, such as eggs, dairy, wheat, peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. The foods should be in forms and textures appropriate for infants.
  • Give your baby one new food at a time, and wait 3-5 days before starting another. After each new food, watch for any allergic reactions such as diarrhea, rash or vomiting. If any of these occur, stop using the new food and consult with your child's pediatrician.
  • The AAAAI recommends that allergenic foods be given for the first time at home, in small tastes, rather than at a daycare or restaurant. The amount can be gradually increased if there are no signs of intolerance or allergic symptoms.

As always, talk with your child’s pediatrician before introducing any highly allergic food, especially if you have another child with an allergy.

Keep in mind that peanuts and peanut butter are choking hazards in infants and young children. Use forms that are safe for babies, such as thinning out a small amount of peanut butter in cereal or yogurt, or smoothed into pureed fruits or vegetables. Avoid whole peanuts until your child is old enough to chew them well (at least 4 years and older).

For some kids, allergies are unavoidable. The good news is that food allergies are often outgrown during early childhood. An estimated 80-90 percent of egg, milk, wheat and soy allergies go away by age 5.  While peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish allergies are usually lifelong, some research indicates that about 1 in 5 children with a peanut allergy eventually outgrow it.

You can help your child stay safe and live well with a food allergy. First, you’ll need to closely monitor what he/she eats. Second, you can protect your child by knowing how to recognize symptoms of an allergic reaction and manage one if it happens. Many kids with food allergies need to have quick access to an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen®) at all times.

If you believe your child may have allergies, your pediatrician or allergist can help. Allergy tests can give you information about what your child is and is not allergic to.

Learn more about allergy services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Learn more about children’s services at Edward-Elmhurst.

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