From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of food allergies among children under 18 years old increased by 18 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On the rise since 1997, today four out of every 100 children may suffer from these sometimes dangerous reactions.
What’s an allergy
There are a variety of allergy symptoms that children may experience. These include skin rashes or hives, difficulty breathing, sneezing, coughing or a runny nose, itchy or watery eyes and an upset stomach with or without diarrhea.
In general, allergies can be triggered from many different substances, including pollen, insect bites or stings, fur, cigarette smoke, and different food products, such as milk, eggs, chocolate, nuts, citrus and tomatoes.
According to the CDC, the prevalence of skin allergies decreased with age, whereas the instances of respiratory allergies, such as asthma, increased with age.
Any child may develop allergies, but it’s more common in families with a history of allergies. John Moore, DO, FAAFP, Aetna’s medical director for the U.S. Northeast Region, says this increased prevalence of allergies is due to advances in medical treatment.
“A severe allergic reaction years ago would have killed people,” Moore said. “But because we’re treating people with allergies more effectively, they’re living into adulthood and passing their genetics for serious allergic reactions on to their children.”
Early exposure may have benefits
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is a part of the National Institutes of Health, issued clinical guidelines on Jan. 5, 2017, on early introduction of peanut containing foods to infants to prevent the development of an allergy.
The NIAID recommends introducing peanut-containing foods into the diets of infants deemed with a high risk of developing a peanut allergy as early as 4 to 6 months of age. Infants with mild or moderate eczema should have peanut-containing foods introduced into their diets when they are about 6 months of age, the NIAID recommends.
The CDC found that early detection of specific allergies can reduce the negative impacts on a child’s quality of life.
High-risk toddlers exposed to peanut products until they were 5 years old had an 81 percent reduction in developing an allergy
A 2014 trial studied over 600 toddlers who were determined to be at high-risk for a peanut allergy. The toddlers, between the ages of 4- and 11-months of age, were told to eat peanut products until they were 5 years old.
At the end of the study, the children who were exposed to peanuts had an 81 percent reduction in developing a peanut allergy.
The study led to a joint statement that includes interim guidance on early exposure from several organizations, including the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; American Academy of Pediatrics; American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology; and World Allergy Organization.
While researchers continue to study early exposure, Moore advised consulting with a physician to determine if it’s the best course of action.
“The recommendations of when to start peanuts to at risk children have been controversial over recent years,” he said. “It is best to speak directly with your child’s pediatrician or family physician in regards to when to start peanuts or foods with nut products.”
The physician may perform allergy testing or refer your child to an allergy specialist for testing and/or advice when appropriate.
What you can do
Children, as well as adults, can undergo an allergy test to determine what types of foods or materials may lead to an allergic reaction. The skin test, or skin pricking testing, involves applying one or more diluted allergens to a prick on the top later of the skin to see if there is a reaction, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Another common test involves blood testing known as radioallergosobrent test (RAST). Eliminating certain food ingredients from the diet may be recommended as a method of testing in order to look for an improvement with ongoing exam findings or symptoms or to see if an apparent response to an allergen is avoided.
It’s rare, however, for a child to be administered a test before experiencing allergic symptoms, according to Moore.
“Children normally don’t require allergy testing until a child appears to have ongoing allergic symptoms or findings on exam or an apparent or suspected reaction to a food exposure,” Moore said. “Your child’s pediatrician or family physician may recommend allergy testing if necessary.”
If a child does undergo allergy testing, depending on the test results the child may be prescribed different methods of treatment, such as “avoidance strategies,” allergy medication or a series of allergy shots that will desensitize the child over time in order to lessen or prevent an allergic reaction, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Note: This story was updated on Jan. 9, 2017 with the recommendations released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.