Food for Thought: Food allergies are becoming more prevalent in our children

by anna paige

Food allergies are on the rise in the United States, especially in children under the age of 18, according to a recent report by the Center for Disease Control.

The study, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and released in October 2008, revealed that approximately four in 100 children younger than 18 have a food allergy, an increase of 18 percent from 1997 to 2007.

Thomas Scarborough, MD, owner of Montana Allergy and Asthma Specialists and a pediatric trained allergist, said it’s not fully understood why allergies are increasing in children, though data suggests developed countries are experiencing the largest percentage of growth in children’s allergies.

“Whatever’s going on seems to be environmental,” Scarborough said. Other suggestions for the rise in children’s allergies include increased awareness of food allergies leading to earlier doctor visits and diagnosis, according to the study.

Seeking a diagnosis

Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat account for most allergic reactions in children with food allergies. If ingested, these foods will display clear signs of an allergic reaction through a child’s skin, respiratory, digestive or cardiovascular systems, according to Scarborough.

“Most children will develop hives after coming in contact with a food they’re allergic to,” Scarborough said.

Other skin manifestations in reaction to food allergens include red, inflamed or itchy skin (non-specific eczema) or atopic dermatitis (eczema related to allergies). Scarborough recommends anyone with moderate to sever dermatitis see a specialist for a food allergy evaluation.

Other manifestations of food allergies include persistent nausea and/or diarrhea after eating certain foods, breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, or lip and/or tongue swelling after digestion of a certain food.

“Food allergies manifest rather quickly, and the patient will have any or all of the symptoms described, ranging from mild to severe or life threatening,” Scarborough said.

Scarborough said tree nuts and peanuts are most likely to cause a severe or life-treating reactions, though are not the only foods that pose a potentially serious risk. He warns that even if the first reaction to peanuts is not severe, the second exposure could be deadly.

If concerned that a child may have food-related allergies, Scarborough recommends visiting an allergy specialist for a patient interview. This typically involves a interview regarding the patient’s family history, what he or she experienced when coming in contact to the suspected allergen, and an allergic test.

There are multiple types of allergic tests. Scarborough conducts a skin test by placing food extracts directly on a small abrasion of the child’s skin, looking to see if a reaction develops. If allergic, the child will develop a hive where the food is placed.

Prevalence of allergies

The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion estimates approximately as much as 8 percent of children younger than 5 have food allergies as compared to 2 percent of adults.

Though it’s not completely understood when allergies first appear in children, Scarborough said food allergies are more frequent in children because a majority of the allergies are outgrown by the time they are a little older.

Milk, egg, soy and wheat allergies are often the foods children outgrow. It is estimated that children acquire these allergies from age 6 to 24 months, and the majority of children outgrow such allergies between 4 to 6 years of age.

That is not the case for nut allergies, which develop within the first 2 to 3 years of age. Most children don’t outgrow peanut and tree nut allergies. Scarborough said approximately 20 percent of children with a peanut allergy will become peanut tolerant, but the majority have a lifelong allergies.

“We don’t know why certain foods when acquired in pediatric population are outgrown at a certain age and others are not,” Scarborough said. “It’s under investigation.”

Avoidance techniques

The National Center for Health Statistics study also found that children with food allergies are two to four times more likely to have additional allergies and asthma. Children with both food allergies and asthma have an increased risk of anaphylactic reactions to foods and are at a higher risk of serious complications or death as a result of an allergic attack.

Avoiding an allergy attack is based on parent and patient vigilance, Scarborough said. He recommends parents employ avoidance measures by diligently reading labels and packaged foods for food allergens and understanding problems with cross contamination and avoiding them.

“It’s a matter of true vigilance,” Scarborough said. “For a peanut allergy, when you’re at a restaurant, ask if the foods contain peanuts, if the restaurant cooks with peanut products, and request foods not be cooked in peanut sauces.” Scarborough also advises parents be aware of the possibility of cross contamination through pots or pans.

Children that are diagnosed with food allergies at an early age should be educated about foods they shouldn’t eat and taught not to accept food from other kids. If they do eat something, the child should know the signs of an allergic reaction and the proper course of informing an adult or parent if they are having a reaction.

“Kids are a lot more savvy that most people give them credit for,” Scarborough said.

Reactions to a food allergy can range from mild to life threatening. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that symptoms of a food-allergy reaction can be sudden and severe, appearing within a few minutes or up to two hours following ingestion of the allergy-causing food. Symptoms include one or more of the following:

* Hives

* Flushed skin or rash

* Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth

* Face, tongue, or lip swelling

* Vomiting and/or diarrhea

* Abdominal cramps

* Coughing or wheezing

* Dizziness and/or lightheadedness

* Swelling of the throat and vocal cords

* Difficulty breathing

* Loss of consciousness

Anna Paige is a freelance writer and journalist based in Billings and founder of Pen and Paige, a marketing, editorial and promotional company. Contact her at www.penandpaige.com.