Does your child has an abnormal reaction after eating nutrients such as milk, egg or peanut? Does your daughter get abdominal pain after drinking a glass of milk? Does your son get difficulty breathing after eating a peanut butter sandwich? Does your son/daughter develop a rash after eating products containing hen’s egg? Then it is possible that your child has a food allergy.
What is food allergy?
There is a lot of confusion about food allergy. Not every reaction to a nutrient is an allergic reaction. Health care professionals use the term food hypersensitivity to indicate different reactions to food. Food hypersensitivity is a general term including food allergy, food intolerance and food aversion.
Food allergy is caused when the body mistakenly makes an antibody (IgE) to ‘fight off’ a specific food. When the food is eaten (or sometimes is just in contact with the skin) it triggers an immune system response which results in the release of histamine and other substances in the body. These cause various symptoms, depending on where in the body they are released. Examples of nutrients your child can react allergic to are peanut, cow’s milk and hen’s egg protein. The production of antibodies is called sensitization. When someone produced antibodies against a particular food, that doesn’t mean automatically that he/she has a food allergy. A food allergy can only be confirmed by a so-called food challenge test.
Food intolerance (non-allergic hypersensitivity) is much more common than food allergy. Food intolerance can have a number of different causes. Some people may be lacking an enzyme that is required for proper digestion of the food. Others seem to react to substances that occur naturally in food. Examples of food intolerance are lactose-intolerance and gluten-intolerance.
Food aversion is a strong feeling of dislike, opposition or antipathy towards a trigger and/or substance, in this case food. This dislike has no physical cause but has a psychological cause. An aversion is not an allergy. The particular nutrients will be avoided by your child out of fear that something might happen. That fear can take on such enormous proportions that your child is afraid to put food in its mouth, let alone dares to swallow it.
How often does a food allergy occur?
Food allergy is more common in infants and young children than in adults. In The Netherlands about 3% of the adults is suffering from food allergy, in children that percentage is 8%.
What are the symptoms of food allergy?
The symptoms related to food allergies can be very different per person and per nutrient. The symptoms also can vary per organ. The severity can range from mild to life-threatening.
Typical symptoms in relation to food allergy are:
Children suffering from hay fever sometimes react allergic to certain nutrients, this phenomenon is called cross-reactivity. Cross-reactivity in allergic reactions occur when the proteins in one substance (typically pollen) are similar to the proteins found in another substance (typically a food). For example, if your child is allergic to birch tree pollen, he/she may also find that eating apples causes an allergic reaction. This also can happen when your child is allergic to house dust mite and rubber latex.
Tips in case of a food allergy
There are a number of practical tips that you can use when your child is suffering from a food allergy:
- Try to find out as soon as possible what type of food and/or nutrient your child is reacting to;
- Please request a referral to a medical specialist with expertise in the field of food hypersensitivity and food allergy;
- Avoid eating and/or contact with food and/or nutrient your child is allergic to;
- Let your child carry something on him/her which states where he/she is allergic to;
- Read the food labels carefully, ingredients can change over time so keep checking this regularly;
- If your child is experiencing an allergic reaction on a particular product, store the label carefully so that you can give this to the attending physician;
- Provide clean cutlery, plates and other tableware and a clean workplace to avoid ‘contamination’ of products;
- Watch and keep track of the weight, growth and overall condition of your child carefully;
- Ask a dietitian for help and/or guidance if necessary;
- Inform the people close to your child (friends, family, school) about his/her food allergy and make sure they know when and how to act if necessary;
- Does your child carry an adrenaline auto-injector because of a severe allergy? Ensure that your child, you, your family, friends and/or teachers know how to administer the adrenaline auto-injector.