Common childhood allergy misconceptions
Allergies are quite common in children and can be a worry for parents. Your child might have been diagnosed with an allergy or you may be worried that your child is showing some signs – however, it’s important to be as aware as possible about the different types of allergies and intolerances and how they can affect your child.
Dr George Du Toit, Consultant allergy specialist at The Portland Hospital, clears up some of the most common misconceptions surrounding allergies in children.
What are some of the most common misconceptions?
One common misconception is that allergies develop late in life. By and large, most food allergic children present with an allergy in the first year. The most common allergies in the UK are egg and milk, with peanuts being the third most common. Allergies can also be made up of fish, soy, wheat, hen’s egg, kiwi fruit and other less common foods.
Another misconception is that children have to have parents who have allergies to develop an allergy themselves. Whilst being born to an allergic family is a risk factor for the development of a food allergy, most children with allergies are born to families where there’s either no history or a distant history of allergy. The most common risk factors are early onset severe atopic eczema, and for this reason should be treated aggressively early in life to seal up the skin barrier.
As a parent, what is the best way to determine a food allergy/intolerance with a fussy eater?
Children who display fussy eating mannerisms around a common food allergen such as milk at the time of weaning on to a dairy solid or breast milk alternative, or a hen’s egg, should raise suspicion of a food allergy.
Allergy occurs soon after exposure to an allergen, usually around 20 minutes, and is often associated with other symptoms in addition to fussy mannerisms such as a dislike or active aversion of the food. These additional symptoms and signs may include altered behaviour such as a tugging on the ears, itchy eyes, red skin, hives, flaring, swelling and vomiting, and in the worst case scenario, anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction).
What is the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy?
Intolerances are exceptionally rare in children and the most common scenario in the UK is lactose intolerance that occurs after diarrhoea.
The symptoms of intolerance are very different and can come on as altered, loose, frothy, discoloured and frequent stools, associated with gastrointestinal symptoms such as excessive wind, pain and bloating. Intolerances come on after a larger amount of ingestion of the food stuff whereas allergies can occur after very small amounts.
Intolerances are the normal human default in people of Asian and African descent but this only comes on in the fourth, fifth and sixth decade of life. Young children need to be able to tolerate lactose as this is a mammalian sugar, hence found in breast milk. It is the lactose that renders breast milk so palatable and the reason why children enjoy this as the milk of choice.
How do allergies affect babies and children differently?
Young babies do not have verbal skills so one would need to judge allergic reactions and observe other symptoms and signs. For example, a young baby allergic to milk will often, through hunger, take a few glugs of the milk and then develop symptoms. An older child who is milk allergic will reject the food and will be able to complain that they dislike it or that the food tickles in their mouth, while also coughing and scratching at the throat, so this will present differently.
Younger children are more commonly allergic to eggs and milk which can be outgrown, while older children are more commonly affected by the allergies that are not outgrown such as nuts, sesame, fish and shellfish.
Visit our website to find out more about children’s allergies and the Allergy Challenge Testing Service at The Portland Hospital.