Despite reports that childhood food allergies are on the rise, hope is on the horizon. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), children’s food allergies are increasingly common, but the majority of children will “outgrow” reactions to common allergens including milk, soy, egg, and wheat. Even among children allergic to peanuts, an often severe allergy, between one-fifth and two-thirds will outgrow them. Even better, there are steps a parent can actively take to reduce the likelihood that their children develop serious food allergies.
Food allergies by the numbers
Approximately 4% of children under age 18, some three million kids, have food allergies. Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat account for over 90% of reported food allergies. Reactions range from a mild tingling sensation around the mouth to a severe reaction (anaphylaxis) that can lead to death if untreated.
Food allergies are more common in children under age 5 and less common in Hispanic than in non-Hispanic white and black children. Rates of food allergies are similar among boys and girls.
The childhood food allergy rate was 18% higher in 2007 than in 1997. Health experts speculate, however, that some of this upswing may be due to increased awareness and reporting and use of new medical diagnostic codes that more accurately identify children with food allergies.
The ABCs of avoiding and managing allergies
The reported increase in food allergies is alarming, but a few simple steps may reduce your child’s likelihood of developing allergies. Even for children with food allergies, there are more ways than ever to manage them.
• Breast-feed. If possible, breast feed your baby for at least 6 to 12 months. Research suggests that breast-feeding may reduce food allergy risk.
• Look at your history. If you have a family history of allergy (food, respiratory, skin, or environmental), talk to your doctor about avoiding specific foods when pregnant or breast-feeding. For high-risk children, this may reduce allergy risk. For the general public, most health experts agree this is not necessary.
• Control asthma. In children with food allergies, 29% have asthma, compared with 12% of children without food allergies. If your child already has food allergies, ask your doctor whether he or she needs to be tested for asthma, because not all children with asthma have typical symptoms of wheezing or difficulty breathing. Good asthma control is important for managing food and other allergies.
• Don’t ignore even mild rashes. Of kids with food allergies, 27% have eczema or skin allergy compared with only 8% of children without food allergies.
• When pregnant, enjoy probiotic foods such as yogurt. Ask your pediatrician about a good probiotic supplement for your baby or child. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that may help keep allergies at bay.
• Enjoy those pets. Children raised with animals appear to be less prone to allergies than children in pet-free households.
• Be clean but not germ-o-phobic. Exposure to mold and other common allergens may increase the chances of allergy development in children. So keep your house and kids clean, but not too clean because research also shows that over-use of antibacterial hand soap, fastidious avoidance of all germs, and lack of exposure to garden variety infections such as colds may make kids more prone to allergies.
(NCHS Data Brief 2008;10:1–8; Clin Rev Allergy Immunol 2008;34:217–30; J Allergy Clin Immunol 2003;112:183–9)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD