What are food allergies in a baby?
A food allergy is essentially an overreaction of the body to food. “All allergies are a sensitivity to something in the environment,” says Mark Moss, MD, a pediatric allergist at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics. When the body is exposed to the allergen -- in this case, a certain food -- it releases an antibody called IgE, which causes the reactions we associate with allergies (hives, itching, difficulty breathing).
“In very young children, less than a year of age, the most common type of allergy is food allergy,” Moss says. That’s because kids experience the world mouth-first. If they’re going to develop sensitivity to anything, it will probably be first introduced to the body through their mouth. This is also the time when baby’s sampling all kinds of new foods.
Some children seem more prone to allergies than others. Doctors have found that babies who have eczema are more likely to develop food allergies -- and that kids with food allergies are more likely to develop environmental allergies and asthma.
What are the symptoms of food allergies in babies?
Hives, itching, lip/tongue/facial swelling, vomiting and diarrhea, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath are all symptoms of food allergy when they occur soon after eating a specific food. That’s why pediatricians advise that parents introduce new foods one by one -- so if baby does have an allergic reaction to a food, you can pinpoint which one caused it. Allergic reactions tend to happen at the first exposure to a new food, because the body needs to sort of “meet” the new food and develop antibodies to it. So feed your baby any new food over a period of a few days and observe her carefully. If she hasn’t had a reaction after three days or so of the new food, she’s probably A-OK.
The top eight most allergenic foods are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts), fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, so be especially careful and observant when introducing any of those foods.
Are there any tests for food allergies in babies?
“To diagnose an allergy, we have to find the presence of IgE specific to the triggering allergen. That can be done with an allergy skin test, a blood test or an older type of allergy testing called an intradermal skin test,” Moss says.
If you suspect baby has a food allergy, consult her pediatrician. He’ll want you to describe baby’s reaction and likely will ask about your/her medical and family history (a family history of allergy increases the risk of food allergies, as does a past history of eczema). If he thinks baby could have a food allergy, he may refer her to a pediatric allergist for allergy testing. Skin-prick testing is the most common form of allergy testing in young kids; if baby develops hives when a small amount of allergic substance is “pricked” onto her skin, she’s probably allergic to that substance.
How common are food allergies in babies?
Food allergies are far more common today than they once were. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the prevalence of food allergies in kids under the age of 18 increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. Six percent of kids under age three have a food allergy. The good news: Many kids outgrow their food allergies, especially allergies to cow’s milk, eggs, soy and wheat.
How did my baby get food allergies?
No one quite knows why some kids develop food allergies and others don’t, although researchers suspect a genetic link, since some families seem much more prone to allergies than others.
What’s the best way to treat food allergies in babies?
Cut the trigger food out of baby’s diet. If she’s allergic to wheat, stick to oat, rice or barley cereal. (Gluten-free foods are a good option for older kids who are allergic to wheat.)
Some kids are deathly allergic to certain foods -- exposure can cause a severe reaction called anaphylaxis, which can lead to shock and death. If your child has ever developed shortness of breath or wheezing after ingesting a certain food, your doctor may recommend that you carry an EpiPen, which is a needle used to quickly deliver an injection of epinephrine. Epinephrine can reverse anaphylaxis.
What can I do to prevent my baby from getting food allergies?
Doctors used to advise waiting until certain ages (often after age one, depending on the food) to introduce the most commonly allergenic foods, but there’s no solid evidence that this approach works to prevent food allergies. In fact, some research actually seems to suggest that introducing small amounts of potentially allergenic food early in a child’s life can prevent an allergy. Talk to your doctor to get the latest information on allergy prevention.
What do other moms do when their babies have food allergies?
“My daughter is allergic to wheat, cow's and goat's milk, and peanuts and tree nuts. She’s outgrown a lot, but we’ve been told by the allergist she’ll never outgrow the dairy allergy (it's a severe allergy, not an intolerance), and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for wheat (I was allergic to it and outgrew it around age three, and actually dairy about the same...).”
“My son is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs and dairy. Thus far, my daughter tests negative for all, and she tolerates dairy. We don't eat eggs, peanuts or tree nuts, so she hasn't had any exposure yet. Overall, her health is completely different from his, though. She has environmental allergies, eczema and asthma. But my son has none of those as of yet.”
“I have twin boys. Baby B has serious food allergies all over the board. His tummy is very sensitive to nonorganic foods also, like raisins. Baby A has no food allergies. We did take dairy out of [baby B’s] diet to help with some of the gas, and that encouraged his eating habits.”
Are there any other resources for food allergies in babies?
American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org
March of Dimes
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
The Bump expert: Mark Moss, MD, pediatric allergist at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics
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Reminder: Medical info on The Bump is FYI only and doesn't replace a visit to a medical professional.