Food Allergies: A Growing Concern

Food allergies are on the rise, and parents need to be vigilant.

Food allergies affect an estimated 5 percent of the children in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their prevalence among school-age kids jumped 18 percent from 1997 to 2007.

And, in some cases, it doesn’t stop with food. Children with food allergies are two to four times more likely to have asthma or other allergic conditions than those without food allergies, says the CDC.

Allergic reactions to foods have become the most common cause of anaphylaxis — the rapid, whole body onset of symptoms tied to an allergic reaction that can be fatal.  The potential for anaphylaxis, which can cause rapid swelling of the throat, often forces adults and children to carry an “EpiPen”,  an auto-injector containing epinephrine, which acts quickly to improve breathing and reduce swelling.

Fortunately, anaphylaxis is not as common as the more typical reactions to food allergies, including skin rashes, eczema, hives, intestinal issues and a burning or tingling sensation in the mouth or tongue.

Sometimes these mild intestinal reactions amount to an intolerance of certain foods, and not an outright allergy. Nonetheless, parents of infants can start early to determine if their child has food allergies, said Javier Hiriart, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group internist and pediatrician at West Kendall Baptist Hospital.

“We are seeing a greater awareness of food allergies as incidents increase,” said Dr. Hiriart. “Parents of infants should introduce new foods in stages to keep track of any reactions and report any potential allergies to their pediatrician. You should not be giving infants too many different foods too early.”

Although the immune system usually protects people from germs, in people with food allergies, the body mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful. The CDC says that eight foods or food groups account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the U.S. They are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.

Parents should also keep track of ingredients used in cooking foods introduced to young children.

Sometimes certain ingredients can cause a mild to severe reaction.

“Once you know that your child has had some type of reaction, your doctor can confirm with additional testing,” Dr. Hiriart said.

The likelihood of developing allergies can be hereditary, although this is not a certainty.

“If parents have allergic tendencies, a child may be more prone,” Dr. Hiriart said. “The same general recommendations apply. Be cautious and introduce one food at a time. And be vigilant of any reactions.”

Three years ago, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which is designed to improve food safety in the U.S. by shifting the focus “from response to prevention,” says the CDC. After consulting with other agencies, the CDC developed voluntary guidelines for managing food allergies in school, early care and education centers.

Food allergies often force families to make substantial dietary changes, which affect the whole household. Everyone needs to take part, especially when infants, toddlers or young children are involved.

“Food allergies can change the whole family dynamic,” Dr. Hiriart said. “It becomes an issue in the household that requires greater awareness of the problem and greater vigilance .”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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