Common Food Allergies in Babies: symptoms, reaction & diagnosis

Has your little one started to eat solid foods? If so, your baby is on her journey of discovering new flavours and textures. While watching your baby indulge in a delightful meal is simply pleasing, chances are she might react differently to a few food items. No, we aren’t talking about fussy eaters. Rather, in some cases, your baby may have certain food allergies or simply be intolerant to them.

Read on to discover what infant food allergy is, what are the common food allergy symptoms and how baby food intolerance differs from baby food allergies.

What Are Food Allergies?

Broadly speaking, an allergy is an immune system's response to a substance that it doesn't like. The substance (allergens) could be dust, pollen, fur, or a particular food item. But when it comes to food allergies, a person’s body reacts to a particular food with digestive problems, hives, or breathing problems. The human body treats allergens as invaders and produces antibodies to try to fight off the invasion. Once these antibodies enter the bloodstream, the body reacts—hence the term "allergic reaction." Fortunately, baby food allergies are rare, with fewer than eight percent of those under the age of three having them. In most cases, these children also outgrow their food allergies over time. Still, because the body’s reaction can be severe if your baby does indeed have a food allergy, it’s important to know what an allergic reaction can look like and what to do if you suspect your baby has a food allergy.

Signs and Symptoms of Food Allergy to Watch Out For

Food allergies can be more serious than seasonal allergies because the body’s reaction can be more severe.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of a food allergy in a baby or toddler:

  • Skin rashes:

You might notice red, itchy, or even swollen patches.

  • Breathing problems:

These can range from sneezing to reactions that are a bit more serious like wheezing or throat tightness.

  • Stomach symptoms:

These can include vomiting and diarrhoea.

  • Circulation problems:

You might notice that your baby has pale skin or has a dizzy spell. In serious cases, your little one may become unconscious.

Notify your child's doctor if you see any of these symptoms. If multiple symptoms happen quickly at the same time after your baby or toddler has eaten food, she may be having an anaphylactic reaction (a very serious allergic reaction that comes on quickly), which is life-threatening. In such a scenario you must seek immediate medical attention.

Common Foods That Cause Allergic Reactions

So what are the most common food allergens? Here's a list of foods that often trigger an allergy in your baby or toddler:

  • Cow's milk:

About two or three percent of children have milk allergies; many children outgrow this allergy. Note that most baby formulas are made with cow's milk, so if you're formula-feeding and your infant is allergic to milk, you may have to switch to a hypoallergenic formula. If you're breastfeeding and your infant is allergic to milk, you may have to follow a milk-free or dairy-free diet.

  • Eggs:

Most children outgrow this food allergy.

  • Tree nuts

Most tree nuts include almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts. Most children do not outgrow tree nut allergies.

  • Peanuts:

These are not nuts; rather, they are legumes similar to beans and peas. Most children do not outgrow their peanut allergy.

  • Soy:

This allergy is more common in babies than in older children. Some children do outgrow this allergy.

  • Wheat:

A wheat allergy is different from a sensitivity to gluten (which is also found in rye and barley—not just in wheat). A wheat allergy can cause a serious allergic reaction, whereas a gluten sensitivity wouldn't. Many children outgrow a wheat allergy.

  • Fish (salmon, tuna, etc.):

This food allergy usually lasts into adulthood.

  • Shellfish (shrimp, clams, scallops, lobster, etc.):

This food allergy usually lasts into adulthood.

As you can see, there is a bright side to some of this. Many children outgrow their food allergies, with an estimated 80 to 90 percent of children growing out of their allergies to milk, eggs, wheat, and soy by the time they are five years old. And, one in five children will probably outgrow peanut allergies too. Speak to your baby's doctor if you have any questions about your little one's food allergy.

What's the Difference Between a Food Allergy and a Food Intolerance?

Sometimes children aren't allergic to a certain food, but instead, have an intolerance for it. Intolerance of certain foods (basically an inability to digest the food) is less serious than a food allergy (which can result in a very serious allergic reaction) but it's still an uncomfortable problem. Here are two common food intolerances:

  • Lactose intolerance:

This is when your child has difficulty digesting the natural sugar in milk. It is the most common food intolerance and leads to symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea in babies. This intolerance usually shows up around three years of age and lasts into adulthood.

  • Gluten intolerance:

This is when the body is unable to digest a protein (called gluten) found in wheat, rye, and barley. Because the intestines are unable to absorb the nutrients from these foods, an immune reaction occurs, with symptoms such as cramps, diarrhoea, weight loss, and irritability. Gluten intolerance is typically diagnosed between the ages of six months and two years and lasts into adulthood.

How Are Food Allergies Diagnosed?

If you suspect your baby is intolerant or allergic to food, consult her doctor. It's not a good idea to try to make your diagnosis. The doctor may use any of the following to diagnose a food allergy:

  • Skin prick test (scratch test):

This involves placing a drop of the allergen in a liquid extract form on your baby's skin and scratching the skin to see if there is a reaction. Results show up in about 15 minutes.

  • Blood test:

This can be done to measure the number of antibodies in your baby's blood. The sample of blood is tested in a laboratory by mixing it with different allergens in liquid extract form to see if antibodies are detected. You may have to wait a few weeks to get these results.

  • Elimination diet:

This involves removing the suspected food allergen from your baby's diet and seeing if her symptoms clear up over time. You'll have to monitor your baby to see if the symptoms do clear up and document the process for several weeks.

What to Do If Your Baby Has Been Diagnosed with a Food Allergy

If your baby or toddler is diagnosed with a food allergy, it's best to begin avoiding that specific food immediately, even if her allergic reaction isn't a serious one. You'll need to be very mindful of what foods your baby or toddler is going to eat at all times, especially if it's the food you didn't prepare.

Check Ingredient Labels

Be aware that many store-bought foods contain traces of allergens (the most common ones in packaged foods are tree nuts, peanuts, soy, and wheat), so you will need to start reading all product labels to make sure you aren't accidentally giving your baby or toddler something he may have an allergic reaction to. It's also a good idea to make sure your pantry doesn't contain any foods that have traces of the allergen because you never know when your toddler may get into something he shouldn't be eating. In time, when your child is old enough to understand, you'll want to teach him about his food allergy.

Pay Attention to Your Infant's Reactions

If you're still in the breastfeeding stage, you may want to avoid certain foods if you see your infant having a bad allergic reaction like skin rashes or loose stools. But check with his doctor first before making any sweeping dietary changes. Similarly, if you're formula-feeding, you will want to pay attention to the list of ingredients on the formula label if you see your infant experiencing rashes or loose stools. He may be allergic to one of the ingredients. Check with his doctor, who may recommend switching to a hypoallergenic formula. Of course, you'll need to watch carefully for signs of food allergies as you transition to feeding your little one solid foods.

Precautions to Take with Serious Food Allergies

If your child's doctor has diagnosed a serious food allergy that results in life-threatening anaphylaxis, he will prescribe a special epinephrine auto-injector. Epinephrine is a life-saving drug that works quickly to stop swelling of the airways. You’ll need to learn how to use the device so that you can inject it immediately in case your little one experiences an anaphylactic reaction. Keep a number of these devices handy, perhaps keeping one in your car and one at home in your first-aid kit or medicine cabinet. If your baby goes to daycare, make sure the staff has one as well. You’ll also need to make sure everyone who cares for your little one (including grandparents and babysitters) knows how to use the injector, and you'll need to remember to replace the injectors when they expire. Caregivers, daycare staff, preschool teachers, and friends and family members who care for your baby or toddler should all be aware of his allergies and know what to do if an anaphylactic reaction occurs.

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Avoid giving your child foods that contain calcium caseinate or casein. Make sure to read labels of sherbet or margarine packages as they contain casein, a milk protein.

  • If your child is lactose intolerant, give her lactose-free milk and dairy products, or even chewable lactase tablets. It can be a way to replace the missing enzyme. Similarly, the calcium requirement can be fulfilled in other forms like through a glass of fresh orange juice.

  • Stay updated about your child’s health by visiting your child’s doctor for his routine check-up.

When to seek Professional Help

Firstly, you should visit a paediatric nutritionist. He will help you understand how your child can lead a balanced diet with the necessary restrictions. In case your baby has severe food allergies, the doctor may provide you with a prescription for a special 'epi-pen’ containing adrenaline for immediate use. Make sure to place these pens in an accessible location in your home and replace them as they expire.

The Bottom Line

If your baby is allergic to a certain food, there are chances that she might have to avoid those foods altogether. On the other hand, you and your family members need to be prepared to act immediately in case she has a severe allergic reaction. Fortunately, many children outgrow their allergies by a certain age. But if you still have certain doubts and questions about infant food allergy or food intolerance, you should consult with your child’s doctor. He will be able to provide you with the right guidance and help you put your mind at ease.

Frequently Asked Questions

The foods that babies and toddlers are most commonly allergic to include:

  • Cow's milk
  • Eggs
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  •  Fish

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