Food allergies and intolerance are a common occurrence in children especially to those under one year when new foods are being introduced regularly. Although food allergy and intolerance may present with similar symptoms, it should be clear that a food allergy is more severe and can be life threatening if appropriate measures are not taken.
Differences between food allergy and food intolerance
A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to a substance in food as if it were toxic. The immune system protects the body by releasing chemicals like histamines into the tissues hence the subsequent effect can be major with a small amount of food taken. A food allergy occurs suddenly, it’s caused by just a small amount of food, occurs each time the food in question is consumed and it is life threatening.
Food intolerance are caused by non-immunologic mechanisms such as metabolic/ biochemical abnormality associated with ingestion of a food or dietary component whether the latter is a nutrient or non-nutrient substance. It is less severe and a child can withstand a small amount of the food in question. Food intolerance is gradual and only occurs when the suspected food is consumed in plenty. It is not life threatening.
Intolerance occurs when a given food irritates the stomach and the food cannot be digested properly for example gluten and lactose intolerance (a child cannot digest lactose sugar found in cow’s milk). Symptoms of food intolerance include nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.
According to a pediatric nurse at Nanyuki District Hospital, food allergies unlike intolerance, affects a child’s whole body and not just the stomach. The symptoms include rash or itchy skin (eczema), chest pain, abrupt drop in blood pressure and a child has difficult in swallowing.
Anaphylaxis- this is a severe form of allergic response whereby the throat swells thus preventing normal breathing and swallowing, blood pressure drops abruptly and the heart rate rises. A child diagnosed with this condition is prescribed an epinephrine (adrenalin) auto injector which should be administered immediately the child shows a sign of anaphylactic reaction.
Common triggers to food allergies and intolerance (Allergens)
Peanuts, shell fish, cow’s milk, eggs, soy and wheat.
Diagnosis of allergies
Diet history and physical examination
This is whereby the doctor or an allergist takes the food history of the child. The description of symptoms accompanied by information as to the time of onset of reaction following ingestion, most recent occurrence, the quantity of food required to produce the symptoms and the number of times the problem has occurred is obtained. The physical examination is directed towards the systems in which food reactions are more likely, especially the GIT, cutaneous and respiratory systems.
This involves examination of signs and symptoms such as breathing difficulty, abdominal pain, eczema, rash, nausea/vomiting and running nose.
A small amount of food in question is applied on the skin (mostly on the arm). If there appears a red itchy bump within 15 minutes of applications, then there is an allergy.
Treatment of allergies
The only cure for food allergies is to avoid the allergens (foods causing allergy). However, most children will outgrow the allergy by the time they reach adolescent, more so those allergic to products such as eggs, soy beans, wheat and milk. On the other hand, allergies related to fish and treenuts (such as almonds) are likely to be lifelong.
How to prevent allergies
To prevent allergies, learn the foods in question and how much causes symptoms. Avoid such foods or consume an amount that cannot cause symptoms. Also one can ask how the food is prepared especially when eating outside home. Read food labels to establish the content.
Did You Know
If a child parents have a history of allergies, the child has higher risks of developing at least one of the allergic problems such as hay fever, eczema and asthma. However, the allergy may not necessarily be the same as the parent.
Introducing highly allergic foods to children (such as fish, peanut butter and eggs) as early as six months (during weaning) may help prevent development of allergies. This is because, if introduced later in life, the immune system may consider them as foreign substances and as a result attack them hence allergic reactions.