As parents these days, we are constantly being reminded about the dangers of food allergies. We have to be careful not only about what our kids eat a home, but also about what is served at birthday parties, play dates, and even school with the snacks that are provided.
At some summer camps, children wear color-coded bracelets to indicate specific allergies. A by-product of helicopter parenting? It would be easy to dismiss it as that, until we hear that one in every 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom, has a food allergy. And about 40 percent of kids with food allergies are allergic to more than one food.
There has been some research to suggest that our modern-day need to germ proof absolutely everything has led to an overuse of hand sanitizers and antibacterial soap — and that this kills off too much good bacteria, leaving us susceptible to more allergies. This is what’s known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” says Dr. Theodore Kim, principal physician at Allergy Partners of Northern Virginia.
“Around the turn of the last century, humans used to get a lot sicker on a regular basis, and our bodies were constantly fighting off major infection,” Kim says. “Now that we have such effective vaccines and advances in modern medicine, our immune system is ‘confused,’ which can result in immune system overreaction such as in allergies.”
In May of this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics turned what we thought we knew about kids’ food allergies on its head. It has confirmed, as a result of ongoing studies, that now expectant mothers do not need to avoid peanuts or other foods known to cause allergies, or avoid giving those foods to infants, even if there is a family history of allergies.
This erases the guidelines set in 2000 that advised giving hydrolyzed (broken down) infant formulas to babies at risk for food allergies and avoiding allergenic foods like milk and nuts until after age 1.
“The latest studies support introducing foods early to babies to help prevent future food allergies,” Kim says. “Introducing eggs between 4 to 6 months of age and peanuts between 4 and 11 months of age to children without high risk for food allergies can help prevent egg and peanut allergies, respectively.”
Although these new findings are both promising and exciting, if one has high-risk factors, such as a family history of food allergies or moderate to severe eczema, then these recommendations may not apply. Best bet: Always check with your doctor first.
Thankfully, if your child suffers with food allergies, time can also be on your side, as kids can outgrow allergies, but little is still known as to why. Just as suddenly as they can develop, they can inexplicably vanish, and the body ceases reacting to the allergen.
Research has shown that one in five kids will outgrow their peanut allergies, one in 10 will outgrow their tree nut allergy, and many kids eventually outgrow their milk, egg, soy and wheat allergy.
Kim suggests retesting your child for allergies once a year in your allergist’s office. Recently, he and his colleagues have seen great success with food oral immunotherapy, where they give the patient small amounts of the allergen over time to help the body outgrow it.
“With our oral immunotherapy program for peanuts, the patients start out eating very tiny amounts of peanut protein,” Kim says. “The amounts steadily increase until they have reached a maintenance dose, which is typically eight peanuts a day after 10 months of treatment. The main goal is to prevent anaphylactic reaction from an accidental exposure.”
It is always a good idea to check with your pediatrician if you think your child is having any bad reaction to something they are eating or drinking. Your doctor may have the answers you need or they may refer you to an allergist to see if there is something more targeted going on. Then you will know what the next course of action should be while keeping the health and safety of your child at the forefront.
Melanie Switzer Reilly is a Washington, D.C.-based mom, television producer and print journalist.