Ever since my oldest daughter, Idy, was diagnosed with her food allergies (over two years ago), I have lived with the worry of food allergies in the future. Never mind whether she would grow out of her allergies, but what would I do about any other children that I might have? While allergies are certainly genetic – studies show that the child of two parents with any allergy (be it food, environmental, seasonal, etc) has over a 90% chance of developing (specifically) a food allergy – I didn’t want to be overly paranoid or too easygoing about my future children’s diets.
The truth is that so many allergic reactions can be overlooked and attributed to something other than a food allergy. Idy’s vomiting? A sensitive gag reflex from eating too fast. (My then-pediatrician, in point of fact, attributed it to an ear infection and stomach virus he says lasted three months. He also guaranteed me that my daughter didn’t have a milk allergy. Ha and ha again). Her horrific diaper rashes? Nothing more than sensitive skin – and eczema can be a reaction to weather or perfumes or dyes in laundry detergents. The list goes on. Because I kept waving her reactions away, we kept feeding her foods she was allergic to and ended up receiving a diagnoses many months after we rightly should have had one.
In no small way, the worst part of the whole year wasn’t even the vomiting and the rashes and the miserable child and so on. The worst part was walking into our first allergist’s office, being completely talked over by the doctor, and then not given any preparation for the allergy test.
Well, let me prepare you: when a doctor does a skin prick test, they take a small needle that has been dipped into a vial of a (usually commercially prepared) allergen and then prick the person being tested. Our first allergist prepared this odd looking board with multiple needles on it and tested Idy for at least 10 allergens in one go. Not only did I have no idea, at that point, of how an allergy test is given – I was not prepared for a board of needles to come sweeping out of the air and slam into my daughter’s back. I was easily more traumatized by it than she was (she’s forgotten about it; I haven’t).
Our new allergist, thank G-d, does a single needle at a time. The doctors listen and pay attention and are sympathetic. They have toys in the office for children to play with and make sure to talk to the children before pricking to put them more at ease. The difference between the two offices is amazing and, while going to an allergist’s office isn’t usually a pleasant experience by nature, I can’t imagine it being more pleasant than this.
To help you avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made, we’ll do a few features here on the basics of food allergies in children; from recognizing and diagnosing, to cross-contamination and avoidance.
So let’s begin!
For starters, one has to realize that food allergies are an issue with the immune system – the body misidentifies a substance in the system as harmful and reacts. A food intolerance, on the other hand (while having many of the same symptoms), is simply a digestive issue.
Lactose intolerance, for example, isn’t an allergic immune response to the milk – but rather the sugar (lactose) found in it. Remove the sugar and you remove the problem. There is also the option of taking a medication like Lactaid to help ease the symptoms. A milk allergy, on the other hand, is a reaction to the protein (casein) that is found in all animal milks – so someone with a milk allergy isn’t just allergic to cow’s milk, but goat’s milk and buffalo milk (and so on and forth) as well.
Furthermore, a food intolerance will only have digestive related reactions, such as bloating and stomach cramps. A true allergy, on the other hand, will include reactions that run the gamut from hives, rashes and a tingly mouth to more serious reactions like swelling in the throat, difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness. As such, food allergies are considered by the medical community to be potentially life-threatening.
Celiac is a different story altogether. While known as a gluten intolerance, it is actually a genetic disorder that effects approximately 1 out of every 133 Americans. By eating unsafe foods, someone with celiac is actually causing severe, and sometimes permanent, damage to their intestines. In addition, symptoms tend to be similar to the digestive-related reactions of food allergies and include stomach cramps, bloating and diarrhea.
Because of the possibility of malnutrition and significant weight loss (or difficulty in gaining weight in the first place), it is important to diagnose celiac as early as possible. Studies have shown that the longer someone with the disorder continues to eat gluten, the higher their risk of developing gastrointestinal cancer – by anywhere from 40 to 100 percent more likely than the general population.
What all of this translates into daily living with food allergies, intolerances or celiac, is constant worry and fear. If you think your neighbor is hyper-vigilant and a little bit crazy about her kid’s food allergies, trust me – she’s doing the bare minimum in keeping her child safe. Studies have shown that subsequent reactions (specifically in the case of food allergies) are more severe than the reaction they follow – just because my daughter reacted with eczema last time doesn’t rule out a breathing related reaction next time.
Still have questions? Leave us a comment here and we’ll do our best to clarify or explain further.