Sometimes parents think that children are playing tricks on them when they refuse to eat other foods. As parents, we often suspect that the child is looking for attention, when in fact the food makes them feel seriously sick. Food allergies are quite popular in children and the reaction can range from a tingling sensation around the mouth and lips to a rash. They can also get an upset tummy, vomit, have diarrhoea or difficult breathing. At worse, it can lead to death.
“There has been a dramatic rise in allergic diseases both in South Africa and globally in recent years; so much so that we are finding ourselves in the midst of what we may call an ‘allergy epidemic’ today,” says Dr Thulja Trikamjee, a specialist paediatrician.
Who is at risk?
Dr Trikamjee says that individuals today have a higher risk than ever before of suffering from some form of allergy. According to the Allergy Foundation of South Africa, a baby without any family history of allergies now has a 15% risk of developing an allergic condition within their first few years of life.
“The Allergy Foundation further notes that if one parent has an allergy, then the child’s risk increases to between 40 and 50%; and if both parents are allergic, the risk is as great as 60 to 80%. A child who has siblings with allergies also has a significantly increased risk of developing allergies.”
It starts in the womb
This is why experts have warned that food allergy prevention must start in the womb. So, if you’re pregnant, find out what you can do to prevent food allergies in your children. “As the foetus develops, so too does the baby’s immune system. As the baby develops its own antibodies, exposure to potential allergens at this time can assist in preventing them from developing allergies to these substances,” says Dr Trikamjee, adding that unbeknown to most mothers, when they eat something, tiny little food proteins from the food pass through the umbilical cord to the foetus. If this continues through pregnancy, the baby’s immune system starts to recognise these food proteins. This process continues after birth and after the baby starts eating solids.
Common foods linked to allergies
According to a Reuters report, eight types of food account for 90% of food allergies: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Dr Trikamjee concurs and points out that people can potentially have an allergic reaction to any foods, however, the main allergenic food groups that cause the majority of reactions in children include:
- Cow’s milk
- Peanuts and tree nuts
Aggravating other conditions
No one knows how or why children develop food allergies. Overall, 3,8% of boys and 4,1% of girls have food allergies but most children outgrew the allergy, although some remain allergic for life. Children with a food allergy are two to four times more likely than other children to have asthma and other allergies, as well. The Reuters report found that in 2007, 29% of children with a food allergy also had asthma, compared to 12% of children without food allergies. About 27% of children with a food allergy had eczema or other skin allergies, compared to 8% of most children, and 30% had respiratory allergies, compared with nine percent of the general population under the age of 18.
How to prevent food allergies in children
Here is Dr Trikamjee’s advice from preventing food allergies in children from the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant:
Eat a healthy balanced diet
A healthy pregnancy diet should include food from all of the major food groups. Do not cut out or reduce your consumption of any specific allergenic foods, such as dairy, egg, seafood and nuts, unless you have a confirmed allergy to any of these food items.
Eat oily fish
Consider increasing your intake of oily fish, or taking an omega supplement.
Don’t smoke or drink
Avoid smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol during pregnancy. And do not expose children to second-hand smoke.
Consider a natural birth
Dr Trikamjee says that, from the perspective of a child’s immune system, natural birth is considered preferable over a Caesarean section.
Starting on solids
When introducing solids to a six-month-old baby, be sure to include allergenic foods like dairy, egg, seafood and nut butters.
Breastfeed for your baby for as long as you can. The World Health Organisation recommends that babies should be breastfed for at least six months. “Breastmilk contains numerous immune factors and properties, which can assist in allergy prevention, as well as protect babies from infections,” says Dr Trikamjee.