Children and food allergies

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional.  I’m a somewhat informed amateur, but I believe I’m right 🙂

Now that I’m gluten free, I’m coming to realize how much there is to know about allergies and how little I do know! Here’s my small amount of collected wisdom!

People with allergies are often genetically likely to get them. Allergic reactions are often paired – asthma and eczema for example. These are both conditions which can be triggered by food allergies among other things. I am a good example. My grandfather and uncle both had severe asthma, and my father suffered from migraines which were linked to food. At 5 months, as was common in the mid-1960s, I was moved on to cow’s milk and given eggs. By the time I was 1 year old, I had developed both asthma and eczema – the eczema so bad I needed medication. So I certainly had a genetic predisposition towards both of these reactions, but probably the foods I was given were triggers. My mother now says that she wishes she’d had more experience and trusted that I wasn’t just being a fussy baby when I spit the egg out repeatedly!

What are some signs of allergic reactions in children? Wheezy chests, rashes which don’t go away. Dry, cracked skin which doesn’t heal and gets weepy and itchy. Stomach pain. Digestive problems. Sometimes slow growth rates or slow weight gain, especially in kids with celiac disease.

So if you think your child might be allergic to food, what can you do? The main causes of allergy or food intolerance in children are wheat, dairy, eggs and soy. The first thing you can try is removing them completely from their diet and see if there is an improvement. In very young children, this is the easiest option. The second thing is allergen tests – either prick tests or blood tests (RAST testing). The prick tests are cheaper, but getting a child to sit still while their arm is being scratched and an itchy liquid applied is not going to go down well with an under 5. The RAST tests are quick, because it’s just a blood test, and these are great if you’re looking for a specific allergen.

Are any of my children intolerant to or allergic to foods, do they have eczema or asthma? No. Why not? I think partly because I was very aware of my own food intolerances, but also a certain amount of luck. I also, along with my Dad’s migraines, have a sister who can’t eat fruit at all, and a brother who is caffeine intolerant (as I am). So I did a bit of reading and did the following with my kids to hopefully reduce their susceptibility to allergies.

I breastfed, and while I was breastfeeding, I tried to stay away from things that were strong allergens for me, but also things like nuts. When it came time to introduce solids, I tried to follow the recommendations of no solids until over 6 months. This wasn’t a happening thing with child #1, who at 4 months expressed a very strong preference for solid food please! To mitigate the chances of reaction with her I started with very low allergen foods – in our case pear, but apple is another good one (I am intolerant to apple though, so I saved that one for later). I gave her only pear for a week, and when she didn’t react to that, I added in a vegetable for a week.  And so on. It was a very slow process, but she didn’t react to anything in an adverse way. When she was 4, she developed an unexpected allergy to mandarins – hives! We kept her off mandarins for 6 months, and when she tried them again, she was fine. I followed the same basic process with my three younger kids as well, although was a little more haphazard as we went along – partly because I didn’t have as much time. I still kept a record though of everything I’d introduced them to, and did a very gradual introduction. This did mean that I made a lot of my own baby food, but that actually worked out pretty well for us!

There are some excellent Plunket guidelines about when to introduce different types of foods – no nuts before 18 months, no fish or eggs before 12 months, that kind of thing, and I followed those pretty carefully.

If your child does get diagnosed with an allergy or intolerance to some food ingredient, the best advice I can give is to read the labels! Also plan, plan, plan. Always make sure that if you’re going out, you have some snacks available that are ‘safe’. Birthday parties can be a nightmare, so take your own food, and just have a word to the hostess.

If your child has a severe reaction to food, make sure you have an epi pen and know how to use it; that their daycare, school and friends are all aware of the situation and start teaching them what they can’t eat before you think they understand!

There are also some fantastic websites out there. Here are a couple that I especially like and I’ve listed them in my blogroll:

Mfd.co.nz – Manufactured Food Database – put together by the ADHB and others, this lists all sorts of intolerances and allergies, and has lists of foods, drinks and so on by brand which are safe to consume. A great resource.

kidspot.co.nz/browse-kidspot.asp – a good general resource with a health section

allergy.org.nz – the NZ allergy website.

Note again that these are just accumulated bits of wisdom and I am not a medical professional! If you think your child might have a food allergy, get them to the doctor!

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