An allergy is a life-threatening reaction in which the body’s immune system reacts excessively against an offending agent, such as food or drugs. Even a small amount of the food allergen is enough to trigger the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
What causes a food allergy?
Exposure to a food item causes the immune system to attack the proteins present in the food. These proteins, also called allergens, are considered to be harmful by the body and defensive molecules (called antibodies) are formed by the body in response to the allergens. The next time the child touches, eats or even inhales any of these food items, the antibodies cause the body to release a chemical, known as histamine. This chemical is responsible for the various signs and symptoms that are a part of the food allergy spectrum.
How common are food allergies?
Food allergies are remarkably common, with some estimates indicating that it affects almost 1 in every 13 children under the age of 18 in the United States. More than 15 million Americans are known to suffer from some sort of food allergies. Although a little less common in adults as compared to children, close to 30 percent of children suffer from allergy to more than one food item. Food allergies are known to grossly impact the quality of life of the affected child. With an estimated annual cost of $25 billion, this medical condition may make the child more prone to be bullied at school.
The severity of a food allergy may be gauged from the fact that every 3 minutes, an immunological allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room.
Food allergy vs intolerance
Food allergies are often mistaken for another disorder known as food intolerance. Although the clinical features of both these medical conditions may overlap, food intolerance is unrelated to the immune system of the body and is often caused by a child’s inability to process certain food items (such as lactose intolerance). In addition, food intolerance is rarely as life-threatening as a food allergy.
Signs of allergies in children
The signs and symptoms of a food allergy can vary from individual to individual, with some children experiencing mild manifestations (such as itching around the mouth), whereas a select few may have severe symptoms that may cause death. These clinical features may occur either immediately or after a few hours of ingesting an offending food item.
Amongst the clinical features seen in a food allergy, skin reactions are the most common presenting manifestation. These may include the following:
- Itchiness, tingling and redness around the mouth
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and/ or the extremities
- Red bumps (known as hives)
- Eczema of the skin
Food allergy reactions may also involve the other systems of the body:
- Respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose, a congested or stuffy nose, difficulty in breathing, wheezing, sneezing or coughing
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting may also be seen in a few children
- Some children may present with lightheadedness or fainting episodes
A serious allergic reaction may sometimes be triggered by an offending agent. This reaction, also called anaphylaxis requires emergency treatment and may present with the following features:
- Swelling of the throat and airways
- An inability to breathe
- A sharp drop in blood pressure leading to shock
- Dizziness and loss of consciousness
- A rapid pulse
- In some cases, this life-threatening reaction may even cause death of the affected child
In view of this, it becomes imperative to go the emergency room and meet a doctor/allergist as soon as your child develops an allergic reaction. Timely intervention by a medical professional may save the life of the affected child.