What is a food allergy?
An estimated 8% of children suffer from food allergies. If your baby has a food allergy, their immune system attacks the offending food as though it’s harmful. Your baby’s body then releases antibodies and other substances that cause the allergic reaction. When babies eat food that they are allergic to, the allergic reaction may happen within seconds of eating or it may develop several hours later.
Visual symptoms often include hives, swelling, eczema and red patches. However symptoms may be gastrointestinal, such as vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
Most children with food allergies have mild reactions. However if your child is severely allergic, symptoms usually happen immediately. When a child has a severe allergic reaction, he may have wheezing, swelling of the mouth and tongue, and trouble breathing. This life-threatening reaction is called anaphylaxis.
The most common food allergens for young children are eggs, milk, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts (like walnuts, Brazil nuts, and cashews), fish (like tuna, salmon, and cod), and shellfish (like lobster, shrimp, and crab).
If you or your partner has a family history of food allergies, your baby is more likely to have allergies as well. Most kids outgrow food allergies by age 5, although some allergies (to peanuts or tree nuts, for example) are more likely to persist.
How to manage first foods
Babies usually start with solids between the ages of 4 to 6 months. Doctors are increasing advising patients that it is unnecessary to delay allergenic foods, even in cases where there is a history in the family. Research shows that there is no significant benefit from delaying the introduction of allergenic foods. In fact some research now suggests that delaying the introduction of allergenic food may increase the chance that you baby will develop a food allergy.
Apply the 3-day rule when starting your baby on solids. Wait 3 days before introducing a new food. If your baby is going to react to food, chances are that the symptoms will show up within this time.
If you think your baby has an allergy, visit a paediatric allergist to get a proper and accurate diagnosis. The other way is to get your doctor to administer a food challenge test where your baby is fed the suspected allergenic food in the doctor’s room, who watches for an allergic reaction.
If your baby is diagnosed with a food allergy, you’ll want to learn all you can about it – including which foods to avoid, how to read labels, and how to recognize the early signs of an allergic reaction.
Be sure to keep epinephrine (a medication that stops anaphylaxis) on hand and know how to use it. Communicate this to your child’s caretakers, school and the rest of your family and ensure that they know how to administer the medication and where to access it.
Also make sure that everyone who is ever responsible for taking care of your baby – sitters, relatives, day-care workers – knows about his allergy and what they may not give him to eat. Also make sure they know exactly what to do if he has an allergic reaction.