3 Important Questions Parents Should Ask about Food Allergies

In recent years, food allergies have become increasingly more widespread. The best illustration of this increase in food allergies can be seen at American schools. 

Imagine walking into an American school cafeteria at lunch time. One thing that would immediately stand out to you is that there would probably be designated a table for students with food allergies. You would also see very few students eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Most observers would find this quite different than their school eating experiences from generations past.

These changes clearly show that food allergies impact a larger proportion of people. This stems from infancy and the early years of life. According to End Allergies Together, 1 in 12 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with food allergies. During the critical time that babies develop, they can become immune from or become allergic to certain foods. For these reasons, it is extremely important that parents understand food allergies.

Fortunately, proper education and awareness can help parents combat food allergies early on in a baby’s life. This article serves as a starting point for your understanding of food allergies. Here are 3 questions parents with babies need to know the answer to.  

What is a Food Allergy? 

In modern times, food allergies have become alarmingly common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported a 50 percent increase in the number of children with food allergies since the late 1990s. As such, parents should have a clear understanding of what a food allergy is.

A food allergy is when the immune system has a reaction to a given food.

Unlike food intolerance, the body reacts to a food allergy like a threat. This means that the digestive system has difficulty handling the food and reacts to defend itself. In some cases, they can be severe, at other times they can be mild. In babies and young children, common symptoms include: 

  • Hives 
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps or stomach pain
  • Itching or swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth
  • Coughing, wheezing, or trouble breathing

In general, it is important to be aware that any of the above symptoms can signal an allergic reaction. Food allergies can manifest at any point in life, but the early years of life are typically when you will see the first signs of an allergy. All babies are different, so some may react more strongly than others or display certain symptoms more so than others. 

Foods That Cause Allergic Reactions

There are several foods that are known to cause allergic reactions. Among these, there are 8 that make up the vast majority of all food allergies. The top 8 allergens are:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (such as walnuts or almonds)
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Wheat

Out of the foods mentioned, some are more likely to go away than others. As their immune systems mature, most babies outgrow allergies to egg and milk by the time they enter elementary school. In contrast, some food allergies (once developed) are far less likely to go away. Only 1 in 5 young children will outgrow a peanut allergy and fewer will outgrow allergies to nuts or seafood. For these foods especially, the earliest years can have a long lasting impact.

What Babies are at Risk for Developing a Food Allergy?

Babies and young children are more likely to have food allergies. In fact, most food allergies develop in children 6 years of age or younger. This occurs overtime, it is not something a baby is born with.

Although a baby is not born with a food allergy, there are certain risk factors that parents should be aware of. Some are genetic, while others have more to do with environmental adjustments.

Genetic Factors

All babies have some degree of risk when it comes to developing a food allergy. However, genetic risk factors are unchangeable which can increase the odds. You should therefore pay close attention to these factors, closely observe your baby’s intake of certain foods, and consult with your pediatrician. Here are some genetic risk factor statistics:

  • The reason is unknown, but male children have a 5 times higher incidence of peanut allergies than females. 
  • Having a sibling with food allergies increases a baby’s risk of developing a food allergy above the average (8 to 10 percent) to around 13 percent. 
  • Babies with eczema are more likely to develop a food allergy. Up to 67% of infants with severe eczema and 25% of infants with mild eczema will develop a food allergy. 

Please note that while the odds are higher than average for those with genetic dispositions, this does not seal your baby’s fate. You should be aware of these factors to make informed decisions with the guidance of medical professionals. 

Babies with eczema are more likely to develop a food allergy.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are things that are within your control as a parent. Certain actions can decrease the likelihood of food allergy development in babies. 

  • Expose your babies to germs. A study at Johns Hopkins Medicine showed that infants in homes with a greater variety of bacteria were less likely to develop environmental allergies and wheezing at age 3. This was especially true when babies were exposed in the first year of life.
  • Expose your baby to allergenic foods. Increased exposure to foods like peanuts (see other foods from the top 8) can help your baby build immunity or tolerance.

Whereas babies are not born with food allergies, genetic and environmental factors can play a role in the development of food allergies.

Are Food Allergies Preventable?

Did you know that you can help prevent up to 80 percent of food allergies?

During early infancy, there is a critical immune window that enables you to reduce the risk of food allergies from developing. Starting at 4 months of age, you should begin exposing your baby to small doses of allergenic foods. Recent evidence from the LEAP Study makes it clear that early introduction (4-11 months) along with frequent exposure to peanuts significantly decreased peanut allergy development. 

Another major study on this topic showed promising results as well. According to the  EAT Study, babies who were introduced to allergens starting at 3 months of age saw a 67% reduction of risk in the development of food allergies versus babies who avoided those same allergens. This meant that introducing common allergens early can help protect your baby from developing a food allergy.

Introducing Common Allergens

As your baby reaches this age, you should attempt to introduce them to foods that are common in food allergies. When you integrate these foods into your baby’s diet, be sure to do so one at a time. Each time you offer a new food, you should wait three to five days before adding another new item. That way, you can identify which food causes a reaction (if any). 

As a parent, you can play a significant role in decreasing the odds of your baby having a food allergy. By introducing certain foods early in your baby’s development, you can help them avoid the most common food allergies.

Key Takeaways for Parents

Parents with babies need to expand their knowledge about food allergies. By understanding these 3 questions about food allergies, you can combat food allergies early on in your baby’s life. 

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All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. 

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