Many day cares and preschools in the U.S. have prominently posted signs
asking parents not to pack food for their kids containing peanuts, because so
many children are allergic. It seems like special dietary needs are an
Food allergies affect as many as 8% of children in the U.S., leaving a
challenge for parents: What can you pack for lunch? How can you be sure your
kids don't trade snacks with a friend? How should you handle occasions like
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To find answers -- for causes, symptoms, diet, and more -- WebMD talked to
Wesley Burks, MD, chief of the division of pediatric allergy and immunology at
Duke University Medical Center.
Fast Facts About Food Allergies
Q. What are the most common food allergies in children?
A. Of the 6% to 8% of children below school age who have a food allergy, the
majority are allergic to eggs, milk, and/or peanuts. Milk allergies affect
about 2.5% of children, egg allergies affect 1.5%, and peanut allergies about
Other food allergies that become more common as kids reach school age are
allergies to wheat and soy, shellfish, fish, and tree nuts.
Q. Do children outgrow food allergies?
A. By the time they're about 7 years old, most kids outgrow allergies to
milk, wheat, and soy, but they generally do not outgrow peanut and tree nut
allergies and allergies to fish and shellfish. Be aware of what allergies might
be outgrown, and continue to go back to seek medical care as your child gets
older to see if he or she might no longer be allergic.
Q. What predicts the severity of a food allergy?
A. There's no test that will predict the severity of a reaction. The amount
of IgE antibodies produced doesn't correlate with how severe a reaction is.
[Immunoglobin E antibodies (IgE) are produced in excess by allergic people.] At
one point, a child may have a severe reaction, and another time, it may be much
less severe. It could be due to the amount of the food they ate, whether or not
it was an empty stomach, if they already had a viral infection -- all kinds of
Q. What other kinds of food sensitivities are there?
Two common kinds of food sensitivities are lactose intolerance and gluten
intolerance. These are not "allergies" in that they are not
IgE-mediated, but they can cause problems with certain foods.
Lactose intolerance is not typical in young children. It happens more in
adults, and when we do see it in children, it's more in school-age kids than in
babies and toddlers. Lactose intolerance is caused by the relative lack of an
enzyme that helps to digest the lactose in the milk product. Because it's not
caused by the immune system, it just involves gastrointestinal symptoms like
abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting. It's really related
to how much milk you ingest and is usually fairly manageable.
It takes a fairly large amount of lactose to cause significant symptoms,
like about a glass of milk on an empty stomach. Management is just avoiding
lactose-containing products to a significant degree.
Gluten sensitivity is also not an IgE-mediated allergy. It's caused by a T-cell
in the body that reacts to gluten proteins. (Gluten is a highly complex protein
found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats, and therefore in baked goods made from
these grains, like bread, cookies, and pizza.) Again, it's more seen in adults
and is relatively uncommon in children, and the typical symptoms are
gastrointestinal -- you don't have the hives and wheezing you see with a
classic wheat allergy.