More people have food allergies than ever before. The number of people with food allergies has increased by 50 percent over the past decade or so. According to FARE, a food allergy research and education advocacy group, one out of every 13 children has a food allergy — about 6 million children.
Dr. Scott Oberhoff, an Austin physician who is board certified in allergy, pediatrics and internal medicine, reports that the number of children in Austin with food allergy problems increases every year. “I see children with these problems on a daily basis in my allergy practice,” he says. “It is often incredibly disruptive for the child and the family. These types of allergies change almost every aspect of their lives.”.
What is a Food Allergy?
An allergy is caused by a substance (allergen) that triggers the body’s immune system to react. Reactions caused by food allergies can range from mild to serious. Mild symptoms are itchy skin, a rash or hives. More serious symptoms are swelling in the mouth or throat, wheezing and trouble breathing. About 40 percent of children with food allergies have had a severe or life-threatening reaction. Anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction, affects the organs and can stop breathing and blood flow.
Some types of food allergies cause symptoms related to the digestive tract, such as a stomachache, vomiting or diarrhea. Although these types of food allergies don’t usually result in anaphylaxis, they can cause serious health problems, such as dehydration, if not treated.
What Are the Most Common Food Allergens?
In the U.S., foods that are most likely to cause an allergic reaction are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. Sometimes a child who is allergic to one food can be allergic to a similar food. For example, a child who is allergic to cow’s milk might be allergic to goat’s milk too.
How Do You Know If Your Child Has a Food Allergy?
Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you suspect a food allergy. Be prepared to discuss the symptoms that may be related to eating a specific food. People who have a food allergy typically have a reaction after each exposure. It may be helpful to keep a food and symptom journal if you’re not sure what foods are causing the problem. A detailed one is available at tinyurl.com/y9zybm7t.
Your child may be referred to an allergist for follow-up. Allergists have several tests they use to identify food allergens. With an allergy skin test, the skin is lightly pricked, then a drop of food extract is placed on the area. If a red bump appears after 15 to 20 minutes, the child is probably allergic to that food. Blood tests also are used to identify food allergies. Sometimes people test positive for a food allergy but don’t have a reaction when eating that food. To confirm test results, the allergist may recommend a food challenge test. During this test, the child consumes small, increasing amounts of the suspected food to see if there is a reaction. This test is done under close medical supervision.
What is the Treatment for Food Allergies?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for food allergies. Currently, the most effective treatment is to completely avoid the food allergen and any products that may contain that food as an ingredient. People with food allergies should have immediate access to an epinephrine auto-injector (often called an EpiPen). This device can stop the reaction and allow enough time for the child to get emergency care.
Scientific research efforts are accelerating to address this growing health problem. New treatments to prevent food allergy reactions are being developed. As of May 2018, there were more than 50 food allergy clinical trials taking place in the U.S.
One treatment under investigation is oral immunotherapy. The goal of this treatment is to desensitize the patient’s allergic response to the food allergen. A powdered form of the food allergen is mixed with a harmless food, then the patient is given small doses by mouth. The dosage is increased over time until the patient no longer has a reaction. Proven effectiveness varies widely. Success rates in published trials range from 30 percent to 90 percent. Some patients can’t tolerate the reactions to the treatment and drop out.
Other types of immunotherapy are sublingual (placing the allergen dose under the tongue) or a patch that is applied to the skin. Patches target peanut, milk and egg allergies. More information about current research efforts and clinical trials is available on the FARE website at www.foodallergy.org.
Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance
Not all children who have reactions to a food have a food allergy. With an allergic reaction, the body’s immune system reacts. With food intolerance, the body has trouble with digestion. Lactose intolerance, the inability to digest lactose (milk sugar), is one example. Gluten intolerance, the inability to digest gluten (found in wheat or some other grains) is another example.
Brenda Schoolfield a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.