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Identifying food allergies

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Food allergies can range from inconvenient to terrifying, and they appear to be on the rise. While some experts say that food allergies have been massively over-diagnosed as of late, most parents would rather err on the side of vigilance when it comes to their kids and a potentially crippling reaction. So what are food allergies, and how do you know if your child suffers from one?

Put simply, a food allergy occurs when the body mistakenly attacks a food protein and releases histamines, which result in the symptoms we associate with an allergic reaction (rashes, hives, swelling, itching, wheezing, or even passing out). According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. (A food allergy is generally different from a food sensitivity, such as lactose intolerance, which affects only your digestive system.)

Identifying exactly which food is causing an allergic reaction may take some detective work. The best way to start is to eliminate all of the “big eight,” wait a week, and then re-introduce those foods one week at a time.

Signs of a food allergy in young children include eczema, hives, wheezing, vomiting or diarrhea, and/or diaper rash following consumption of the food in question. Children who are old enough to talk may describe their reactions to a certain food in terms of their mouth or tongues being itchy or feeling like they are heavy or burning.

For additional confirmation, you can have your child do a skin prick test or a blood test. Both of these tests can help assess your child’s reaction to a certain food, but neither one is entirely foolproof (false negatives and positives are common). Most likely they will confirm what you have already learned from going through the food elimination/reintroduction process with your child. That’s why in many cases the most important information is what you can learn at home.

If you suspect a food allergy, your best bet is to have a good pediatrician who can help you establish good guidelines and a plan for your child. Also there are plenty of groups that offer support, particularly FAAN or Kids with Food Allergies.

The good news about allergies is that many children outgrow them (particularly milk, wheat, egg, and soy allergies) by age 10. If your doctor monitors you child’s situation carefully, and there has been no reaction in more than a year, there is a chance you could slowly re-introduce the food to see if the food allergy has truly been outgrown.