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Identifying Symptoms And Diagnosing Food Allergies In Children

by Terry Wilson

Certain foods can cause allergic reactions that affect the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and in serious cases, the cardiovascular system. These reactions can range from mild to severe, and can be potentially life-threatening if not promptly diagnosed and the trigger food avoided. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, approximately 5% of children under age 5 and 4% of kids between 5 and 17 years old have at least one food allergy. If you suspect that your child has a food allergy, work with a pediatric allergist to narrow down the offending food.

Symptoms of Food Allergies

One of the first things you'll notice after your child eats a forbidden food is a variety of unpleasant symptoms. According to MedlinePlus, first-time exposure to that food may only produce a mild reaction, while repeated exposure can result in more serious reactions. Mild symptoms that your child may experience during a food allergy reaction may include:

  • Hives (Itchy, swollen and reddened areas of skin)
  • Redness around the eyes
  • Eczema (Persistent, itchy, dry rash)
  • Stomach pain
  • Odd taste in mouth
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Uterine contractions
  • Dry cough
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose or nasal congestion

Most allergic reactions begin within minutes to a few hours after eating the suspected food item, according to The Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center. In some instances, several areas of the body are affected by the allergen, causing a reaction that may be severe or even life-threatening. This type of allergic reaction is referred to as anaphylaxis and requires immediate medical attention. Common symptoms of a severe allergic reaction may include:

  • Obstructive swelling of the tongue, throat and/or lips
  • Turning blue
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Weak pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Drop in blood pressure (feeling weak or passing out)

Most Common Food Allergies

Food allergies generally develop early in life, but can occur at any age. According to the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, approximately 90% of all food allergies are caused by the following foods: milk, wheat, eggs, tree nuts, soy, peanuts, fish, and shellfish. Most children will outgrow their allergies to milk, eggs and soy. However, most children do not outgrow their allergies to peanuts.

Allergies can also occur from other types of foods, including fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, and seeds. It's important to note that not all reactions to foods are caused by allergens. Many children suffer from food-related intolerances or food sensitivities. For example, lactose intolerance is commonly confused with a food allergy. However, allergies are caused by reactions from the immune system, while lactose intolerance is caused when a person has trouble digesting milk sugar, known as lactose.

Diagnosing Food Allergies

To properly diagnosis food allergies in children, a pediatric allergist will look at various factors, such as the child's symptoms, how often the reactions occur, how long it takes for symptoms to develop, and whether or not allergies run in the family. The allergist will also consider other conditions that could be causing the symptoms, such as a food intolerance or a condition such as Celiac disease where a child cannot tolerate gluten.

If a food allergy is suspected, several tests may be performed to help make a diagnosis. A common test used to pinpoint food allergies is a skin test. A skin test involves dropping liquid extracts of various food allergens on the back or forearm, then pricking the skin and waiting to see if red spots called "wheals" form within 15 minutes. Additional testing at a place like Oak Brook Allergists may be used to confirm the diagnosis.

Food allergies can be scary for parents, especially if the offending food is undetermined. If you suspect that your child may have a food allergy, consult with your child's pediatrician right away and ask for a referral to a pediatric allergist for a diagnosis and treatment plan.