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Identifying Food Allergies and Intolerance in Children

Date Posted: November 9, 2015


As a parent, we all want what is best for our kids, which includes a varied and healthy diet. With all the media coverage of food allergies such as peanuts, and the perils of eating gluten, it can be incredibly nerve wracking to introduce new foods to our kids. That's why it's important to know what reactions you are looking for when we introduce new foods to the family meal plan.

Health Canada estimates that food allergies affect as many as 5-6% of young children in westernized countries. Canadian schools have banned nut products due to the increase in severe allergies in recent years, and companies are now making declarations on their packaging about possible allergens contained in their products.

Experts believe that food intolerance is actually much more common. Although the symptoms are much more subtle, which is why we have put together this quick guide to what constitutes an allergy or intolerance, how to figure out which you are dealing with, and how to get some relief.

Food Allergies

Food allergies usually begin in childhood but can start at any age, and are caused when a food protein is mistakenly identified by the immune system as being harmful. The first time the individual is exposed to such a protein, the body's immune system responds by creating antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). When they are exposed again to the same food protein, IgE antibodies and chemicals such as histamines are released. Histamines are a powerful chemical which can cause a reaction in the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system, generally beginning immediately or within 2 hours after eating.

In Canada, there are nine priority food allergens (substances which causes allergies). These are peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts [filberts], macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts [pignolias], pistachio nuts, and walnuts), sesame seeds, milk, eggs, fish (including shellfish and crustaceans), soy, wheat, and sulphites.

Allergy symptoms can include difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, itching of the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, or any other area of the body, swelling of the eyelids, face, lips and tongue, nasal congestion, runny nose, lightheadedness or fainting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, and vomiting.

The allergy symptoms depend on where in the body the histamine is released. If it is released in the ears, nose, and throat, the child may have an itchy nose and mouth, or trouble breathing or swallowing. If histamine is released in the skin, they may develop hives or a rash. If histamine is released in the gastrointestinal tract, they are likely to develop stomach pains, cramps, vomiting or diarrhea. Many childrenexperience a combination of symptoms as the food is eaten and digested.

Another type of allergy syndrome affects the mouth and tongue and may occur after eating certain fresh fruits and vegetables. These foods contain substances similar to certain pollens. For example, melon contains substances similar to ragweed pollen, and apples have allergens similar to tree pollen. Symptoms often include itchy lips, tongue, and throat.

Treatment for food allergy essentially involves avoiding the offending allergen in the child's diet. This means learning to read and understand ingredient listings and labels, and spending a considerable amount of time and effort to understand the ingredients in everything they ingest. Essentially, there is no medication in any form which is available to reliably prevent an allergic reaction to a certain food before eating that food. Children who have had anaphylactic reactions to a food should wear medical alert bracelets or necklaces stating that they have a food allergy and that they are subject to severe reactions. These children should always carry a syringe of adrenaline (EpiPen).

Food Intolerance

This is a food sensitivity that does not involve the individual's immune system. While the symptoms of food intolerance vary and can be mistaken for those of food allergy, food intolerance is more likely to originate in the gastrointestinal system and is usually caused by an inability to digest or absorb certain foods, or components of those foods. While food allergies need only a small exposure to cause a reaction, children with food intolerance can generally ingest a more normal sized portion before exhibiting symptoms, which often include nausea, stomach pain, gas, cramps, or bloating, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, headaches, and irritability or nervousness. 

Lactose intolerance, or the Intolerance to dairy products, is one of the most common food intolerances. It occurs in people who lack an enzyme called lactase, which is needed to digest lactose (a sugar in milk. And causes symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence.

Again, treatment involves removing the triggering foods from the diet. You may be asked to keep a food diary to record what your child eats and when they get symptoms, and then look for common factors. Elimination diets are a popular way of determining problem foods, taking one suspect food from the diet at a time until the child is symptom-free. You can then reintroduce foods, one at a time, until you determine which foods are the trigger. For those with lactose intolerance, caplets or tablets of lactase are available to take with milk-containing foods in order to promote digestion and lessen symptoms.




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