Pediatric food allergies

KVH Contributor*
Elise Herman
Dr. Elise Herman
KVH Pediatrics

Pediatric Food Allergies

We seem to hear a lot more about food allergy lately – and for good reason. Food allergy is more common in kids than adults, the prevalence of it is increasing, and 8% of all kids under the age of 6 have food allergies. Understanding food allergy and the newest recommendations about peanut allergy is important for parents and anyone interacting with children.

A food allergy is an abnormal immune response of the body to a particular food. You must be exposed to a certain food at least once (either by eating directly or via breast milk) in order to have an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system’s IgE antibodies react with the food, which releases histamines. These histamines cause the signs and symptoms of food allergy that range from mild to life threatening.

90% of all food allergies are caused by the following foods: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, etc.), peanuts, fish, and shellfish. In children, eggs, milk and peanuts are the most common causes of food allergy. Severe reactions are usually caused by peanuts, tree nuts and seafood. Children often outgrow their allergies; 80-90% of milk, egg, wheat and soy allergies resolve by age 5 years. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and seafood are more likely to persist. Approximately only 1 in 5 children will outgrow their peanut allergy.

An allergic reaction to a food usually occurs within minutes to hours of eating it. In addition to hives and wheezing, a child may also have itching, swelling of lips/ tongue, shortness of breath, stomach pain, lowered blood pressure, vomiting, diarrhea and/or anaphylaxis (a severe shock-like reaction). Testing for food allergy is only done if there is a strong suspicion of allergy; an abnormal test does not always mean the child is truly allergic. Testing may include blood tests or a skin prick test.

Treatment for food allergies most importantly means avoiding that food (and similar foods) – not easy in today’s world of processed foods that may contain many ingredients. Even a tiny amount of the offending food can trigger a reaction. Epinephrine is the only treatment for severe allergic reactions and comes in the form of an auto-injector called Epi-Pen. Allergy specialists typically do allergy testing and decide if a child should have an Epi-Pen. It is crucial that anyone who will have contact with a child who has a severe food allergy is aware of this and has access to (and knows how to use) an Epi-Pen.

There has recently been exciting news about peanut allergy, which affects 2% of all children. Previously the recommendation was to wait until at least age 1 year for peanut products but it has been shown that earlier introduction actually decreases a child’s risk of peanut allergy. New guidelines from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases state that for those children at highest risk – those with severe eczema and/or egg allergy – blood testing should be done by age 4-6 months, and if abnormal the child should see an allergist.

For children who have mild to moderate eczema, peanut products may be introduced and given regularly starting at age 6 months. If the infant has no eczema or food allergy, peanut products may be introduced “freely” into the diet and given regularly with other foods at age 4-6 months (ideally solids are begun at 6 months for breast-fed infants). It is important to remember that peanut products may be a choking hazard. A small amount of smooth peanut butter blended into other foods such as applesauce or oatmeal is ideal. If a rash or any sign of allergy occurs, a doctor should be contacted.

*Opinions expressed by KVH Contributors are their own. Managed by Kittitas Valley Healthcare, HealthNews does not provide medical advice. For medical advice, please see your healthcare provider.