A 2011 study, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, estimates that 8 percent of children have food allergies, about two children per classroom. Being educated and following some guidelines can help keep children safe without fearing every birthday party or brown-bag lunch.
According to Dr. Jennifer Lee, allergist at the Everett Clinic, the most common children's food allergies are peanuts, milk, eggs, soy and wheat. Tree nuts, fish and shellfish are other common allergies cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although allergies can crop up any time, "Usually they start presenting themselves within the first two years of life," Lee says.
It is important to note that reactions can be caused either by eating or physically coming into contact with trigger foods. Some children with peanut allergies will break into hives or rashes simply by touching a peanut.
The rate of children's food allergies has increased in past decades. Some theories speculate that diet and environment are factors, but research has yet to pinpoint reasons.
"We don't really know yet," Lee says. "However, a big contributing factor is genetics."
Children whose parents have a history of allergies -- food or otherwise -- are at a higher risk for developing food allergies.
"The skin is the most common part of the body that has a reaction," Lee says.
Eczema -- inflamed, red, rash-like skin -- is a telltale sign. Additional symptoms include hives, swelling of the lips and tongue, nasal symptoms such as sneezing and stuffiness, coughing, problems swallowing, vomiting, dizziness and diarrhea.
Symptoms vary, but almost 40 percent of children with food allergies experience anaphylactic reactions: severe, potentially life-threatening responses. All the more reason, if possible, to identify allergies early.
"If a child has a mild reaction the first time, when they ingest the food again, the reaction will worsen the next time," Lee says.
If your child experiences a sudden and severe reaction -- trouble breathing, extreme swelling of the face, dizziness, fainting -- head for the ER or call 911. If it is not an acute reaction, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician.
"I tell people that if they're concerned and have noticed a close cause-and-effect relationship (between a food and reaction), the child should be evaluated right away," Lee says.
Avoiding trigger foods is the best defense. Parents should notify anyone who shares contact or supervision: family members, teachers, coaches, child care providers. Also, educate your child. Especially as they grow older, they can become the best watchdogs of what they eat.
Consulting with a doctor can also provide important information such as hidden food threats.
Soy, a common food allergen, can be found in unexpected items such as hamburger buns. Peanut butter is sometimes a "secret ingredient" in prepared baked goods, chili and pasta sauces.
For children with severe allergies, a doctor-prescribed epinephrine pen may be necessary for emergencies.
Allergies vs. intolerances
In common conversation, allergy and intolerance are often used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences, such as a milk allergy compared to lactose intolerance.
With allergies, a trace amount of food can trigger a serious reaction whereas a small amount may not be problematic with an intolerance.
"Usually intolerances make children sick and they don't feel good, but it's not life-threatening," Lee says.
Either way, a doctor should be consulted.
Do allergies go away?
Sometimes children's allergies lessen with age. Dr. Hervey Froehlich, Medical Center Chief at Group Health Everett, said milk, soy and egg allergies tend to improve the most. There is no specific timeline, but improvement typically occurs by the teenage or young adult years.
Peanut allergies persist the longest and are least likely to subside.
However, allergy assessment should always be performed by medical professionals.
"If it's been tested and proven that children are allergic to certain foods, they should see their doctor or allergist to be tested again before trying those foods another time," Froehlich says.
As reported in 2011 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, an estimated 8 percent of children 18 years and younger have food allergies. That represents 5.9 million children, about two kids per classroom.
Most common children's food allergies: Peanuts, milk, shellfish, tree nuts, egg, fish, wheat and soy.
Common allergic reactions: Eczema, hives, swelling of the lips and tongue, nasal problems, coughing, vomiting, severe diarrhea and trouble breathing.
Allergic reactions can be caused by eating or touching trigger foods. For a child with a peanut allergy, touching a peanut is sometimes enough for the affected area to break into hives or a rash.
What to do:Consult your doctor if you suspect your child has food allergies. If food allergies are confirmed, avoiding triggers is the best defense. Notify anyone who has close contact with your child: family members, teachers, coaches, child care providers.
Also, educate your child. Children can become the best watchdogs of what they eat.
Some allergies subside with age; milk, soy and eggs are the most common. Peanut allergies are the most persistent. Always consult with a physician to determine whether your child has food allergies.
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