You probably grew up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the school cafeteria. But chances are, your kids might not — and it’s not because there’s a worldwide PB&J shortage. It’s because peanuts are among the most common and potentially harmful allergy-causing foods for children.
Why are food allergies such a big deal? When you’re allergic to a food, your body’s immune system reacts to certain proteins in it, which can lead to mild symptoms, such as hives, or life-threatening ones, such as breathing problems and shock.
But peanuts are only 1 type of food that can potentially cause reactions in children. Besides peanuts, the other top food allergens among children are:
The threat of food allergies among children has become so serious that food companies now have to indicate on their packaging whether the food inside contains any of those allergens. In April 2021, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act became law, naming sesame as the 9th major food allergen. (Beginning in January 2023, food manufacturers will also have to list a warning about sesame on their products’ packaging.)
While relatively rare, food allergies still affect millions of American children. Nearly 5% of children under the age of 5 have a food allergy.
In this article you can learn about food allergies and ways you can keep your children safe.
If it seems like more and more of your friends’ kids have food allergies these days, you’re not imagining things. Food allergies have become twice as common in the past 20 years, says David Stukus, M.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and a professor of clinical pediatrics. But there is also no single reason behind the rise, he adds.
That said, there are some clues. “We know that the tendency to develop allergies is inherited, so children born to parents with allergies are more likely to develop allergies,” says Dr. Stukus. He’s also the director of the Food Allergy Treatment Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. Another possibility could be the result of what is known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” he says, which “has demonstrated that shifts from rural farming environments to more urban and cleaner environments is associated with increased risk of allergies.”
What appears to help: “We now know that early introduction, starting at 4 to 6 months of age and ongoing inclusion in the diet is the best strategy to prevent food allergies,” says Dr. Stukus.
What might your child’s food allergy symptoms look like? They can turn up in or on the following parts of your child’s body:
The simple answer is yes. Most children will outgrow their food allergies, so your kid might start tolerating foods they were originally allergic to after the age of 3 or 4. Some even better news: Anywhere from 80% to 90% of a child’s allergies to egg, milk, soy and wheat disappear by the time they’re 5 years old.
But only about 20% of children with peanut, tree nut or seafood allergies will develop a tolerance over time, Dr. Stukus says.
So, it’s a good idea to consult your child’s doctor or allergist before introducing any new foods into their diet. Their doctor may give them an oral test to figure out whether they’re allergic. Normally, that involves giving them a small amount of a particular food that might trigger an allergy, then closely monitoring them for an allergic reaction.
The increase in the number of children suffering from food allergies has made life a little less predictable for some parents, and it’s a cause of serious concern for many others. That’s because food allergies in children can be life-threatening, says Dr. Stukus.
In some children, in addition to having an allergic response to a particular food, there may be other contributing factors that increase their risk of a severe reaction. “For instance, someone with a milk allergy may have mild symptoms like hives, but if they exercise soon after eating, their reaction could be more severe,” says Dr. Stukus.
Some allergic reactions can occur within a few minutes or as gradually as 2 hours, with symptoms ranging from rashes or hives (mild) to anaphylaxis, which can get in the way of a person’s breathing, blood pressure and heart rate — and could be fatal.
You don’t have to have a degree in medicine to be vigilant and make things safer for your child if they’re dealing with a potentially harmful food allergy. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Always ask about the ingredients in foods that other people make for your child, says Carver. And wash your hands with soap and water before handling safe food.
An allergic reaction can be scary for both your child and you. But it’s good to be prepared, no matter what the situation involves. Here are a few treatment tips:
Of course, it’s always a good idea to consult your child’s doctor or allergist about any additional questions you may have about their allergies or potential reactions. And your pharmacist can provide important information about how to use the prescription drugs mentioned above.
Bottom line: Your goal as a parent is keeping your child happy and healthy, so taking the proper precautions and knowing what to do to prevent potential health issues could be just what the doctor — and your child — ordered.
This advertisement contains information compiled by UnitedHealthcare. UnitedHealthcare does not represent that these are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.
American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. “Food Allergy.” Retrieved December 20, 2022, from https://acaai.org/allergies/allergic-conditions/food/
HealthyChildren.org. “Food Allergies in Children?” Retrieved December 20, 2022, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Food-Allergies-in-Children.aspx
MedlinePlus. November 15, 2018. “Epinephrine Injection.” Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a603002.html
University of Rochester. “Food Allergies.” Retrieved December 20, 2022, from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/childrens-hospital/allergy/food-allergy-center/food-allergies.aspx
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. April 18, 2022. “Food Allergies.” Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/food-allergies