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What's With All The Food Allergies?

Sly Symptoms

Evan's symptoms—colic, eczema and reflux—are common allergic reactions. Others may include itchy or red skin, hives or rashes, coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, asthma or asthma-like symptoms, swelling, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, bloody stools and more. "Infant allergy symptoms can mimic other diseases," Mitchell says. Those may include food intolerance, lactose deficiency, ulcers, gastrointestinal illnesses, even the common cold. "It's very important that parents talk to their pediatrician and visit with an allergist if they have concerns." Evan, for example, had many symptoms, "but nobody helped us connect the dots. Nobody even mentioned allergies as a possibility," says Harris. Typically, a child will experience an allergic reaction within 30 minutes of exposure. The more delayed the reaction, the less likely the child is allergic to the food, says Todd Green, M.D., an allergist/immunologist at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. If a parent suspects a milk allergy, but the symptoms don't show up until several hours later, something else may be to blame.

Researchers are actively working on treatments for children who may never outgrow their food allergies, a number that depends on the allergen. Eighty percent of kids with a milk allergy will outgrow it, but only 20 percent of those allergic to peanuts will. Immunotherapy studies that gradually give children increasing amounts of the allergic substance in order to teach the immune system to tolerate it have already showed encouraging results, says Robert A. Wood, M.D., professor of pediatrics and director of allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Dr. Wood has successfully cured milk allergies for more than a dozen children. Some can now ingest unlimited quantities of milk or dairy products, while others can tolerate it in measured amounts. These are children who would have an allergic reaction after ingesting less than one-quarter teaspoon of milk before participating in the studies. Similar egg and peanut studies are under way. "It's really life-changing," Dr. Wood says. "These are children who were at severe risk if they ate even one bite of birthday cake. Now, many of them can have cake and ice cream."

What can parents do?

Doctors used to recommend that parents wait at least until age 1 to feed potentially high-allergenic foods to children. In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines stating that there isn't enough evidence to support the theory that dietary restrictions play a significant role in preventing food allergies. Some researchers, like Dr. Wood, believe that introducing high-risk foods early may actually boost a child's tolerance for allergenic foods. They look to counties like Thailand, where peanuts are part of the daily cuisine, yet peanut allergies are very rare.

Breastfeeding is one way moms can help fend off potential food allergies. The AAP reports that nursing for at least four months, compared with feeding formula made with cow-milk protein, prevents or delays the occurrence of allergies in early childhood. It's also a wise idea to introduce new foods gradually after the child is 4 to 6 months old. The AAP recommends waiting several days after each new menu item to make sure there isn't a reaction. Parents who think their children may have food allergies (if allergies run in the family, for instance) should talk with their doctor to determine the best strategy for introducing foods, says Mitchell.

Finding a cure isn't something that Stephanie Heath of Overland Park, Kansas, thinks about much as she prepares special sack lunches or teaches her two severely allergic kids to read food labels. But she is quick to count her blessings. "At the end of the day, my kids are healthy and happy, and we can manage the allergies," she says. "We're blessed." As for my son, Henry, my maternal instinct was right on target. We eliminated the suspect foods for a month and then purposely added each one, waiting a few days in between. He may not like sweet potatoes, but there's certainly not a medical reason why he should avoid them.