Could my child have a food allergy?

Posted on 31 December 2019

Your child might not be overreacting if they complain of a stomach ache after eating fish fingers, scrambled eggs or peanut butter toast.

If your child is allergic to certain food, their immune system will overreact, producing antibodies to ‘attack’ food as if it were a virus or other dangerous foreign invader.

During the process, the body releases antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE), which prompt the body to release chemicals known as histamines. When histamines are released, the body reacts by producing a variety of symptoms. In severe cases, a food allergy can cause anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.

As Jeske Wellmann, a dietician at Mediclinic Sandton, explains, peanuts and cow’s milk are the most common allergies in children. “Eggs, fish, shellfish, soya, tree nuts and wheat are other allergies that can be present but the most severe reactions are typically from peanuts and fish.”

The good news is that children can outgrow a number of food allergies – but it’s important to get the right tests done by allergy specialists to ensure that the correct foods are excluded from your child’s diet in the interim.

Wellmann explains that signs that your child might be experiencing an allergic reaction include: itching in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and throat, hives and eczema, wheezing and coughing, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation or vomiting, itchy and watery eyes and lethargy.

“Although these reactions usually start soon after eating the particular food, there can be delayed reactions as well,” Wellmann cautions. “While the causes of food allergies are unknown, it is believed that a combination of environmental influences and genetics plays a role. A family history of food allergies increases your child’s risk of developing an allergy and although younger children have a higher allergenic tendency due to their immature immune systems, allergies can start at any age.”

There is no medication to prevent food allergies. Instead, with the correct diagnosis, food allergies are managed by avoiding food that contains the allergens. If a doctor has determined that your baby is allergic to certain foods, and you are still breastfeeding, it is important to avoid foods in your diet to which your child is allergic. This is because small amounts of the food allergen may be transmitted to your child through your breast milk and cause a reaction.

“A dietician’s advice can be valuable to ensure your child receives optimum nutrients while excluding certain foods,” Wellmann says. “And because many children will outgrow the allergy, it’s important to challenge the child with the particular food at different intervals to see if the allergy is still present.”

And yes. There is a difference between a food allergy and food intolerance. As Wellmann explains, an allergy is a response of the immune system. In cases of food intolerance or food sensitivity, your child’s immune system is not involved. “Food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, is usually due to a physiological reaction such as an enzyme deficiency,” Wellmann explains.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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