Allergy or Intolerance? How to know the difference.

Allergy or Intolerance? How to know the difference.

Peanuts, eggs, wheat and milk. Most parents are aware of common food allergens, but could your child have an intolerance instead? Allergies or intolerances can alter your child’s life and require parents to pay close attention to not only what your child eats but each ingredient listed on the packaging. It’s important to know the difference to be prepared if your child has a reaction.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is when a certain type of food causes the body’s immune system to attack. These can be serious or life-threatening in some cases and, usually, a reaction comes on suddenly. This leads to symptoms such as nausea/vomiting, hives, itching, swelling, throat tightness, coughing or breathing problems. Most food allergies typically involve the skin, with or without the other symptoms. When more than one organ is involved, it is often referred to as anaphylaxis.

Common food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, wheat, soy and fish/shellfish and sesame.

What is a food intolerance?

A food intolerance is when the body can’t properly digest the food or when the food irritates the digestive system. Intolerances can make someone feel bad, but unlike food allergies, intolerances are not life-threatening and could take time for symptoms to display. Common symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, belly pain or gas. Intolerances typically do not cause skin symptoms.

Common food intolerances include lactose (milk), wheat, gluten, fruits and vegetables.

Treating the symptoms

Food allergies affect approximately 8% of children in the United States. Although many children outgrow their allergies, certain foods like seafood, peanut and tree nuts can last a lifetime.  

While no cure exists for food allergies, recent treatments have been approved that can decrease the likelihood a patient will have a reaction if they eat the allergen. Even with treatment, most children still must avoid the food that causes them trouble.

Milk and soy

Allergies or intolerances to milk and soy can be seen in infants and small children. For young children, the symptoms may present differently, including colic (fussy baby), blood in stool, reflux and poor growth.

Your child’s pediatrician may recommend switching to a soy base or hypoallergenic formula. Breastfeeding mothers may be encouraged to remove dairy and/or soy from their diet depending on the child’s symptoms and history. Consult with your child’s doctor if you have concerns.

When to talk to your child’s doctor

If you have concerns about a food allergy or intolerance in your child, speak to your child’s doctor. Your pediatrician may recommend that your child get tested for allergies with skin prick testing or blood testing or may recommend a change in diet.

Testing for food intolerances is much more difficult. Most intolerances are identified through a process of elimination by reviewing your child’s diet and removing suspect foods for as long as two weeks. For breastfeeding mothers, it could take two to three weeks to see improvement in your child’s symptoms.

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