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Children and Food Allergies

As many as 3% of all American children are affected by food allergies, and the percentage is on the rise. Author Marianne Barber found out the hard way how dangerous food allergies can be when she had to rush her toddler to the emergency room after his first bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Now she's written The Parent's Guide to Food Allergies to help parents prepare for the unexpected. She joined the Early Show to talk about her book.

Actual numbers are hard to come by, but health professionals agree that food allergies, particularly in children, are on the rise. According to the Food Allergy Network, about 100 people die nationwide each year from allergic reactions to food. It is estimated that 3% of school-age children have a food allergy, and one in 150 has a peanut allergy.

Advice For Parents

Barber urges concerned parents to call the The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). Once a child's allergy is confirmed, she says a doctor will usually prescribe at least three EpiPens (auto-injectors of epinephrine) and Benadryl. The FAAN sells trainer EpiPens and will send cards that teach people how to read food labels. Parents are also encouraged to get in touch with the Food Allergy Initiative organization. It is useful in supporting research and public policy.

The Signs of Food Allergies

Reactions show up in a variety of different forms:

  • Intestinal symptoms, including diarrhea and vomiting.
  • On the skin, as hives or eczema.
  • In the windpipe, wheezing; or swelling of the lips or tongue.

Reactions may be combined: vomiting with wheezing, or hives with wheezing.

If there's a combination of two or more, or one symptom that's life-threatening, that's called an anaphylactic reaction, and it should be treated right away with the EpiPen and Benadryl, followed up with a visit to the emergency room.

Top US Allergens

  • Milk.
  • Eggs.
  • Wheat.
  • Soy.
  • Peanuts.
  • Tree nuts.
  • Fish.
  • Shellfish.

Best Food Allergy Tests

There are two ways to test for a food allergy. Choosing which test depends largely on the age of the child. If a child is less than 2 years old, doctors usually conduct a blood test. But if a child is older than that, a skin test can be done. Both have disadvantages. Skin tests can return false positives--results that indicate an allergy when in fact there is none. Blood tests are invasive and are only as good as the lab that does the testing. Many doctors do both. Skin tests--also called scratch tests--are easier, so lots of doctors will do that test first. Interpreting the test, however, is an art rather than a science.

Parents need to keep an accurate food diary for 2 weeks. Before testing, most allergists recommend eliminating the suspected food for 2 weeks. It's important to learn how to read a label so the suspected food can e removed from a child's diet completely. If, after the elimination, the symptoms stop, then the allergy is determined. Children, however, are often allergic to more than one food.

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