Food Allergies: Nothing to sneeze at

Your baby just had his first bites of peaches, and hours later has a runny nose and is sneezing. Could it be a reaction to the food?

Quite possibly, yes, and quite possibly, no. Symptoms of food allergies, like diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes, runny noses and sneezing, resemble common childhood ailments. A true diagnosis of a food allergy can only be done by a trained physician. If you suspect a food allergy in your child, take your concern to your pediatrician. All too often parents blame symptoms on a food allergy and needlessly eliminate nutritious foods from their children's diets. This can have negative effects if done incorrectly, such as eliminating dairy products. Not only that, you may be missing an important diagnosis of an underlying illness when you pass off a problem as a food allergy.

Much of the confusion over food allergies lies in the definition. In a true food allergy the allergen (the offending food, usually a protein) triggers an immune system response, producing antibodies called immunoglobulin E. These in turn cause the release of histamines. These histamines are responsible for the multiple symptoms of an allergic reaction, which can range from minor sneezes and sniffles to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction.

Commonly misdiagnosed as food allergies are food sensitivities or food intolerances. They share symptoms of food allergies, but the cause is different. Food intolerances do not involve the immune system. Instead, they can occur for a variety of reasons such as an enzyme deficiency as in lactose intolerance, the inability to digest milk sugar due to a lack of the enzyme, lactase. Or they can occur because the food contains a toxin, such as bacteria or poison. Another adverse reaction is chemical in origin and is called a pharmacologic food reaction. An example would be caffeine. Some people are more "sensitive" to caffeine and can drink only one cup of coffee without getting the jitters, while others can drink several cups and not be affected.

 

Babies are more likely to suffer from food allergies. Most are outgrown by the age of three, perhaps because of a maturing immune system. In fact, 70 percent to 80 percent of infants with a milk allergy will be able to tolerate milk by the time they are four. The food allergies that seem to be an exception to that, and tend to last a lifetime, are allergies to fish and nuts. For babies with a family history of allergies, one way to help delay the onset and reduce the severity of a food allergy is for the baby to be nursed and for the nursing mom to eliminate from her diet the most potent allergens, (milk, egg, fish, nuts) She should nurse exclusively until at least four to six months. The effects can be long-lasting. Another effective tactic in preventing food allergies is to delay introduction of the common allergens. Wait until at least six months to offer dairy products or egg yolk, eight months for wheat, citrus fruits and cooked tomatoes, and 10 months for fish, shellfish, peanuts, corn, berries, raw tomatoes and chocolate. Wait even longer if there is a family history of allergies.

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