Food allergies in children: Signs, symptoms and treatment

Black lunchbox with skull and crossbones on lid and peanuts overflowing out of container

Food allergies are on the rise in the UK, with the NHS reporting that the number of children admitted to hospital with food-related anaphylaxis has increased by 700 per cent since 1990. Recent research at King's College London suggests that early exposure to common causes of allergies, such as peanuts, can dramatically reduce the risk of developing an allergy.

However, more research is needed before it's safe to try such a method at home. Instead, get to know the signs and symptoms, and find out what to do if your child has a problem.

About food allergies
In theory, a person can become allergic to any food, but those most commonly seen are allergies to milk, eggs, wheat, nuts and seeds, or fish and shellfish. Some, such as allergies to milk or eggs, are typically outgrown by the time a child reaches school age, but others, notably to nuts, will stay with a sufferer for life. According to the NHS, babies are at greater risk of developing a problem if there is a history of allergies, whether eczema, asthma, hay fever or to food, in the family. Similarly, those babies or children that already have an allergy have a higher risk of developing a peanut allergy. If your child falls within the at-risk group, it's wise to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, or seek advice from your GP about the best kind of formula to use.

Once the child hits the six-month mark, you can introduce solids, being careful to introduce possible trigger foods one at a time to give you a good idea of what might be causing a problem should one occur. Be particularly careful with nuts though. Not only can children under five easily choke on peanuts, if you believe your little one might be at risk of an allergy, it's wise to speak to your doctor before giving them any food containing nuts for the first time.

Signs and symptoms
Allergic reactions manifest in many different ways. Itchy skin or a rash, a runny or blocked nose, sore, red and itchy eyes, and an itchy throat and/or tongue are all signs of a potential problem. Wheezing and shortness of breath, swollen lips and throat, coughing, and diarrhoea or vomiting are other food allergy symptoms. In the most serious cases, anaphylaxis may occur, and this is potential life-threatening, so be particularly careful if your child has difficulty breathing, is light-headed or feels like they are going to faint. In these cases, immediate treatment is a must so you should call for an ambulance.

Diagnosis and treatment
It is not uncommon for parents to mistakenly believe their child has a food allergy, but if you believe there might be a food-related problem, it is always best to seek help from your GP. You will likely be referred to an allergy clinic, where tests will be performed to find the source of the problem. In some cases, a simple skin-prick test, where tiny extracts of foods are placed on the arm and the skin pierced, will provide the answer, while a blood test to measure the amount of allergic antibodies in the blood is another option. Alternatively, a food elimination diet may be prescribed, and a specialist dietitian will be able to advise you on the right course of action.

Once the specific allergen has been identified, you will be advised on treatment. Though there is no cure, there are several ways to prevent an allergic reaction. Where the symptoms are mild or moderate, antihistamines may be enough to control the problem. In more serious cases, where anaphylaxis is a potential threat, you or your child may be equipped with an auto-injector pen in case of emergencies. Avoiding the trigger food is often the best course of action, and with severe allergies such as those to nuts, it will mean being very careful about checking ingredients lists for danger.

However, with young children, it is very important to take specialist advice before cutting any food group out of their diet, since they may miss out on important nutrients. Your dietitian will be able to talk you through avoiding allergens and what to look out for in terms of ingredients, as well as any nutritional supplements or alternatives available to ensure your child grows up strong and healthy.

Does your child suffer from a food allergy? What advice would you give to other worried parents? Leave your comments below...
Food Allergies in Children