Food allergies are kind of a hot issue right now, especially regarding kids. They’re on the rise – according to the CDC, food allergies increased by about 50% between 1997 and 2011 and they now affect about 8% of children in the country. Because of the increasing prevalence and awareness surrounding food allergies, you can now request to fly peanut-free on airlines and some schools have banned children from bringing peanuts (or any nuts) to school for lunch or snacks.
Of course, not all allergies are created equal. Minor food allergies are inconvenient and unpleasant. They may give us stomach trouble or a strange itch on our tongues. They’re annoying, but not that big a deal. Serious food allergies, on the other hand, can affect every aspect of your life – constantly checking food labels and menus for potential problems and never leaving home without an Epi-Pen. Unfortunately, serious food allergies are quite common – 38.7% of children with food allergies have a history of severe reactions.
The best way to deal with existing food allergies is up for debate, but there’s one thing we can all agree on: the best solution would be to prevent allergies in the first place.
New Hope In The Fight Against Food Allergies
At the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development Study, researchers tracked the age at which 1,421 children were introduced to common allergens (specifically egg, peanut butter, and cow’s milk). They then used skin prick testing (where they place a small amount of the allergen on the skin and then prick it to let it under the surface of the skin) to determine how many of the kids had developed allergies.
They found that children that were introduced to an allergen before they turned 1 were less likely to develop sensitivity to that food than the children that weren’t exposed until later. Interestingly, children that ate eggs before the age of 1 were no only less likely to be sensitive to eggs, but also less likely to be sensitive to peanut butter and cow’s milk.
This study comes during a shift in general management of food allergies. For years, experts advised against exposing very young children to foods that commonly cause allergies. However, it turns out that waiting until children are older actually increases the risk that they’ll develop a sensitivity.
Of course, introducing your child to the foods most likely to cause allergic reactions can be stressful – it’s not quite as easy as handing your kid a spoonful of peanut butter and hoping for the best.
What You Need To Know About Allergies
Allergies are an immune system malfunction. Your immune system is supposed to identify and destroy harmful invaders like bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. Unfortunately, it can get confused and mark harmless substances as dangerous attackers, causing your body to react every time you’re exposed to one of those substances. Pollen, pet dander, bug bites, latex, and penicillin are all common allergens that your body may choose to attack. In some cases, you may be able to decrease environmental allergies over time using allergy shots. Other types of allergies are generally not treatable – you just have to avoid the allergen where possible and manage the symptoms otherwise.
Allergies can cause a range of symptoms – itching, swelling, and hives, to name a few. If they’re not too severe, these can often be treated by removing the allergen and using oral or topical antihistamines. More severe reactions may cause your airways to swell up and restrict your breathing, which can be life-threatening. It’s called “anaphylaxis.” Epi-Pens can be used to temporarily stop the swelling while you get to the emergency room but it can’t actually stop the reaction so you’ll still need to seek medical attention right away.
Food allergies operate the same way as the other types – your body incorrectly marks certain foods as dangerous and goes haywire when you’re exposed. You can theoretically be allergic to any kind of food but in practice, more than 90% of food allergies are caused by just 8 culprits: eggs, fish, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, soy, and wheat.
About a quarter of children with food allergies will actually grow out of them; you’re most likely to grow out of a milk, egg, or soy allergy and least likely to grow out of shellfish or nut allergies.
Food Allergies And Your Kids
So should you give your kids the “big 8” foods before their first birthday? That’s an issue best discussed with your doctor. If you have a family history of allergies or asthma, your little ones may be at a higher risk for food allergies and it may be safer to handle their first exposure with medical help near at hand. And whenever you introduce a new food to your baby, common allergen or no, you should wait a few days before introducing another new food. That way you’ll be able to isolate the cause of any reaction.
It may be too late for those of us who suffer from food allergies and are more than a year old, but this study sheds new light on the possibility of decreasing or even wiping out food allergies in future generations. Hold the Benadryl, please!