Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

About 6% of children have a food allergy. Knowing how allergies work can help you determine if your baby has an allergy to a particular food. An allergy causes baby’s immune system to attack a hostile allergen.

Some of the symptoms of this attack are mild and others are severe. Your baby could get hives, swelling, or have trouble breathing. Typically, a reaction occurs within a few minutes to a couple of hours after eating the specific food. Other symptoms may be ongoing and it may not be clear what is causing the reaction.

A few examples of these types of symptoms include eczema (dry, scaly skin), vomiting or diarrhea. Some reactions may be life threatening resulting in anaphylactic shock where your baby’s airways close up quickly. You child will need immediate medical attention to survive. If you baby has trouble breathing, call 911 to get the paramedics to the scene right away.

Certain foods are problems for many people including eggs, milk, peanuts, wheat, soy, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. They represent 90% of all allergies.

If your baby consistently has symptoms within two hours of eating a certain food, talk with her doctor. He may refer you to a pediatric allergist for testing. An allergist should be able to tell you which food or foods are causing the problem and whether the symptoms are part of an immune reaction (indicating an allergy) or are a sign that your baby's unable to digest the food (indicating a food intolerance). Babies may inherit the tendency to have allergies from their parents but specific allergies are not inherited. If one parent has an allergy, her child has a 50 percent chance of having some sort of allergy, too, although maybe not the same one as the parent. That probability jumps to 75 percent when both parents have allergies.

Food Intolerance

About 20% of the U.S. population has food intolerance. A food intolerance doesn't involve the immune system. If your baby has food intolerance, it may mean she has trouble digesting a particular food. You may notice that every time she eats or drinks that food she's plagued with digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea. The most common one is lactose intolerance. Babies that are lactose intolerant don’t have the enzyme needed to digest the sugar in cow's milk and other dairy products and many formulas.

If you think your baby may have a food allergy or intolerance, talk with her doctor. He may recommend a food diary, change in diet or refer to you a pediatric allergist. An allergist may do an allergy skin test or a blood test to determine whether the symptoms are caused by an immune reaction. The prick test involves placing a tiny amount of an allergen on baby’s skin to see if a hive develops.

Blood tests look for the presence of antibodies to a specific food. A negative test means that your baby's symptoms are less likely to be due to a food allergy, although they may be caused by food intolerance. You may be referred to a gastroenterologist to determine the cause of the intolerance or to look for other explanations for your baby's symptoms.

Preventing Food Allergies

Many guides and doctors recommend delaying the introduction of foods to baby that are common allergens if their parents have allergies. Recent research has shown that there is no real evidence that waiting reduces allergy development. Experts agree that breastfeeding offers some protection against allergies. Consider breastfeeding your baby as long as you can, especially if you have a family history of allergies.

Treatment for Food Allergies

The best treatment for food allergies is strict avoidance of the food. For some foods, this can be difficult because it may be an ingredient in items that you wouldn’t think it would be in. With food allergies, you will need to become very familiar with reading labels and knowing all the various names for substances related to the food your baby is allergic to. There are no medicines that prevent or cure allergic reactions to food.

Learning all you can about your baby’s food allergy, including recognizing the early signs of an allergic reaction will be an important aspect of protecting your child.

For a food allergy, your doctor may recommend that you carry an epinephrine auto-injector, which he can prescribe and show you how to use in case of a reaction. These devices look like magic markers and automatically administer the right dose of epinephrine to stop an allergic reaction.

More Food Allergy Tips

Make sure anyone who takes care of your baby knows about her food allergy and what she shouldn't eat. Point out the kinds of foods that could hide the substance and ask caregivers to double-check ingredients. Also make certain that her caregivers know exactly what to do if she ever has an allergic reaction.

Many children outgrow allergies to soy and wheat by the time they head to school. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are more likely to be lifelong than other food allergies. Milk and egg allergies may take longer or never go away.

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