Around 4 to 6 percent of kids in America and 4 percent of adults have a food allergy of some sort. While that number seems low, it’s likely you have a food allergy of your own or know someone who does.
In recent years, it seems like these potentially deadly allergies have been in the headlines quite a bit. If you’re a parent or spend time with kids in some capacity, what should you know about food allergies? We’re taking a deep dive into the topic below, so read on to learn more.
Defining Food Allergies
First things first, though, what are food allergies?
“This type of allergy occurs when the body reacts to a particular food, believing it to be harmful,” says Michael Abdelmisseh, MD, pediatrician with West Tennessee Medical Group Primary Care & Pediatrics in Dyersburg. “When this happens, the body’s defense mechanisms go into overdrive against that food, treating it like an unwanted invader.”
That reaction produces what we typically think of as symptoms, which are triggered by exposure to the food allergen. These reactions can range from mild to life-threatening, with the latter known as anaphylaxis.
Some Facts About Food Allergies
We’ve shared the basics about what food allergies are, but what else should you know about them? Here are a few facts:
- Nine foods are responsible for most allergic reactions. For a long time, this number was eight, but a ninth allergen was recently added to the list. Cow’s milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, wheat, and sesame are the leading sources of food allergies.
- Sesame was added in 2021. Sesame, which can be found in many foods under the name “tahini” was identified as a common allergen very recently. Beginning on Jan. 1, 2023, food packaging will have to clearly label the presence of this allergen, much like labels do currently for other top allergens.
- The most common allergens are different in adults and children. Adults are more likely to experience allergic reactions to fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts. Kids, on the other hand, more often experience allergies to eggs, milk, soy, and wheat, along with peanuts and tree nuts.
- Food allergies typically emerge in childhood, but can develop at any time. While it’s most common to develop food allergies early in life, particularly around the first exposure to a particular food, these allergies can develop even in adulthood. Existing food allergies may disappear over time, or reactions to them may change.
- Allergic reactions can vary and may affect multiple parts of the body. These reactions may include vomiting, stomach cramps, hives, shortness of breath or wheezing, difficulty swallowing, tongue swelling, a weak pulse, pale skin coloring, dizziness, and anaphylaxis.
- If an allergic reaction is going to occur, it’s often close to the time of ingestion. Most food allergy-related reactions happen within two hours of consuming a particular food or being exposed to it. While rare, it’s not unheard of for reactions to occur four to six hours later.
Protecting Your Child From Food Allergies
If your child experiences any of the symptoms described above in close proximity to consuming food, it’s a good idea to check in with your child’s provider. (If emergency symptoms such as throat swelling occur, seek emergency medical attention.)
When a food allergy is suspected, testing is usually recommended. Skin-prick tests are the most common type of allergy testing, providing results within 20 minutes. During this type of test, a tiny amount of a food allergen is placed on the skin to test for reaction.
If your child is diagnosed with a food allergy, you’ll want to talk with your provider and carefully listen to his or her recommendations. The strategy for managing a food allergy varies depending on the severity of the allergy, but caution is always recommended since reactions can change.
You’ll want to carefully analyze the packaging of any foods you purchase at the grocery store or in other settings, looking for the allergen label specifically. Food packages are required to list even trace amounts of the top eight allergens (nine as of January 2023), meaning even a tiny amount used as a flavoring must be labeled.
When eating out, it’s best to talk with the chef to ensure your child receives an allergen-free plate of food. This includes ensuring the dish is prepared away from other foods that may contain the food.
Regardless of the precautions you take, incidental contact with the food allergen may occur. It’s important to talk with your child’s provider about what to do in this scenario. Your child will likely be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, and it’s important that anyone around your child knows how to use it. Your child should also learn this essential information as soon as it’s age appropriate.
West Tennessee Medical Group Primary Care & Pediatrics specializes in pediatric care. Looking for a new pediatric provider? Schedule an appointment with Dr. Michael.