Managing Food Allergies in Children

2 Jul 2020

Discovering that your little one has a food allergy can be the start of an emotional rollercoaster. Getting children to eat a healthy and varied diet can be challenging enough, but a food allergy can add another layer of complexity to meal times. It can be confusing, frustration and a little scary for parents and the child, and all of these emotions are completely justified.  

 

If you suspect that your child may have a food allergy, you are not alone. Food allergies in Australia are extremely common and Australia has one of the highest allergy rates in the world with approximately 1 in 10 children experiencing a food allergy. 

 

In this article, our in-house Dietitians Anna and Alex from The Biting Truth share their advice when it comes to managing food allergies in children.  

 

What is a food allergy? 

In simple terms, a food allergy occurs when the body detects a particular substance in a food as a threat. The body tries to defend itself against this “threatening substance” and mounts an attack against it. This reaction is what we call an immune response. This can result in a variety of allergenic symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Allergic reactions usually occur quickly, with symptoms appearing within 5 to 30 minutes of the food being consumed. For people who have a food allergy, even exposure to very small amounts of the problem food can cause an allergic reaction. These symptoms will show themselves each time the child is exposed to the same food substance.  

 

What are the signs of a food allergy? 

Common signs of a mild to moderate allergic reaction: 

  • Swelling of lips, face, eyes 

  • Hives or welts 

  • Vomiting 

Common signs of a severe allergic reaction: 

  • Difficult/noisy breathing 

  • Swelling of tongue 

  • Swelling in throat (e.g. drooling, difficulty swallowing) 

  • Change in voice or cry and/or difficulty vocalising 

  • Wheeze or persistent cough 

  • Collapse 

Food allergies can develop at any age but are most common in children under 5 years. Even young babies can develop symptoms of food allergy. 

 

When is it safe to introduce allergen foods into my child’s diet? 

It is recommended to start introducing solid foods (including allergen foods) from around 6 months of age, depending on your baby’s readiness and development. Foods should be age appropriate such as well-cooked egg or smooth peanut butter/paste. This should be complimentary to breast or formula feeding until your child is 12 months old.  

 

What are the most common food allergies? 

Interestingly, although it is possible for any food to cause an allergy, over 90% of food allergies in Australia are caused by just nine foods. Including: 

  • Cow’s milk  

  • Egg  

  • Peanut  

  • Soy  

  • Tree nut  

  • Wheat 

  • Fish 

  • Shellfish 

  • Sesame 

  • Lupin 

Some less common food allergies include: 

  • Linseed 

  • Sesame seed 

  • Peach 

  • Banana 

  • Avocado 

  • Kiwi fruit 

  • Passion fruit 

  • Celery 

  • Mustard seeds 

  • Aniseed 

How do I know if my child has a food allergy? 

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell food allergies and food intolerances apart. If you suspect your child has a food allergy, it’s important to speak to your doctor. We recommend tracking everything your child eats, along with every reaction or symptom you notice. This should include the time when the food was ingested and when the reaction occurs. This information will help arm medical practitioners and make it easier to diagnose the allergy and hence eliminate the foods causing the symptoms. A doctor will ask a series of questions that may help to narrow down the list of likely causes, such as foods or medications consumed that day, or exposure to stinging insects.  

 

To find out whether your child has an allergy or an intolerance, your doctor may carry out a number of diagnostic test, such as: 

  • Dietary review 

  • Skin prick testing 

  • Elimination diet and food challenges 

  • Blood tests 

 

What should I do when I know my child has a food allergy? 

When you first find out your child has a food allergy, it can involve a bit of change. However, we guarantee things will eventually return to a state of normalcy. It is important you work with a doctor, or paediatrician and an Accredited Practising Dietitian to guide you through the process and ensure your child is receiving adequate nutrients.  

 

  • Below the age of 6 months (breast fed) 

It is possible for your baby to be allergic to your breast milk as a result of certain foods you are consuming in your diet. If you think this is the case seek advice from a doctor and dietitian who will help alter your diet to eliminate allergen foods in your breast milk and hence alleviate symptoms in your baby. 

 

  • Below the age of 6 months (formula fed) 

If you are formula feeding your child and you notice a food allergy you should work with both a doctor and dietitian. Don’t be too worried, there are different formulas that are specifically designed for food allergies in babies and a dietitian will be able to recommend the most suitable one for you and your baby’s needs 

 

  • Above the age of 6 months 

Keep an eye on the following: 

  • Food at home: You will need to remove all traces of the allergen from your home if possible. Be aware of cross contamination of food allergens when preparing food. You may need to get different kitchen utensils to use for allergen meals (depending on allergy and severity). It is also important to talk to anyone who will be looking after your child for example childcare, family members, friends, babysitters, schools.  

  • Pre-packaged food: It is important that you become familiar with reading food labels, so you can avoid offering your child any foods that contain the allergen ingredient.  

  • Eating out: Ensure you tell restaurants your child has a food allergy when eating out as 50% of allergic reactions occur when not eating meals outside of the home. 

Will my child outgrow their food allergy? 

The good news is that around 80% of children will outgrow allergies to cow's milk, soy, wheat or egg by the time they start school. This is not a guarantee, but the chances are high. If you suspect your child may have outgrown their food allergy it is important that you consult your child’s allergy specialist.  

 

Unfortunately, allergies to peanut, tree nuts, sesame and seafood persist in around 75% of affected children.