Help for Children with Food Allergies and Intolerances

Food allergies ? Food intolerances? What’s the difference?

Actually, there is a HUGE difference between the two in terms of both in diagnosis and treatment. Welcome to Food Issues 101.

Before We Begin

Believe it or not, if something is bothering your child on the inside, it could very well end up bothing them on the outside! Internal problems can affect behavior, sleep patterns, irritability, attention and coping skills ! So, it’s important to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Food Allergies

When your body has a food allergy, it is reacting to proteins. Food is made up of proteins, and for some reason, the body begins to think of that food (protein) as a threat! It begins to produce antibodies, called IgE (Immunoglobulin E), to kill the attackers. The number of antibodies it produces depends on the severity of your child’s allergy. The higher the IgE number, the more strongly your body reacts to the allergen.

A reaction can present itself as hives, wheezing, rashes, swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, and so on. The worst case scenario is anaphylaxis, which would include difficulty breathing and the swelling of the tongue. It can result in death.

The interesting thing about reactions is that they can appear quickly or as a “delayed reactor.” This means your child may react to the allergen up to six hours later! Delayed reactions occur more frequently with gastrointestinal allergies.

To diagnose a food allergy, the doctor may request a blood test called a RAST test which looks for those higher levels of antibodies in the blood. Those numbers are important in diagnosing the severity of the allergy and cannot be found through a scratch test (given by scratching the skin with the allergens). The scratch test will tell you if an allergy is present.

If your child is diagnosed with a food allergy, it means that the body considers the “food” an invader and it sends out antibodies to kill it.

Food Intolerances

When your child is diagnosed with intolerance, it is usually labeled “lactose” or “fructose” intolerance.

Lactose and fructose are sugars that must be broken down in the stomach. The stomach has special enzymes it produces to tear down the sugars. If those enzymes are not present, you have an intolerance.

Intolerances may show up as vomiting, diarrhea, spitting up, and skin rashes. There’s a lot of crossover in terms of symptoms, which can make it hard to tell the difference.

The gold star test for food intolerance is the hydrogen breath test, or the balloon test.

The child is given a strong drink of either lactose or fructose. Then, at regular intervals, the child blows into what looks like a Mylar balloon. They are checking for the presence of hydrogen in the breath. If your body produces the enzyme that breaks down the sugars (hydrogen’s), then hydrogen will not be present.

You can see where this is going. If you are intolerant, your body is unable to break down sugars because it either does not possess the enzyme, or it doesn’t produce enough of the enzyme to handle the job.

Viola, you have an intolerance. The higher the number of hydrogen’s present, the greater the intolerance.

Can’t You Take Pills for an Allergy?

The question I hear the most often is, “Can’t you take one of those pills?” The answer is yes and no.

Take the case of dairy allergy versus lactose intolerance. If your child has an intolerance, pills such as lact-aid will provide their body with enzymes so they can tolerate dairy.

If they have an allergy, the answer is NO! Their bodies think dairy in an enemy invader, and no pill will take care of that. Technically, they may have the lactose enzyme and be able to process dairy IF they didn’t have the allergy.

The best way to deal with a food allergy is avoidance and a food diary.

Avoidance means exactly that: 100 percent avoidance of the foods that contain your specific allergen.

You get to become an expert at reading labels because they can be hiding anywhere!

I know a man who was allergic to corn. Sounds easy right? We would think that he had to look for products with chunks of corn in the ingredients. Actually, his food-label reading had to look for anything with high fructose CORN syrup. That’s in a lot of products! It’s a product of corn, so it’s on the avoidance list.

The Food Diary

Allergists often consider the food diary to be the most valuable tool in tracking and diagnosing allergies. It’s both simple and challenging. Simply, you record everything your child eats and drinks.

The challenge is to keep track of everything they eat (school is unknown territory)!

If you have a complicated dish, you need to break it down as best you can. Chicken casserole becomes chicken with rice, cream of mushroom soup, beef broth, and mushrooms.

And don’t forget, if your child has a reaction, you need to note the details including time, symptoms, and duration.

A simple way to keep a food diary is to have a small notebook for your child. Divide it into sections with an area for dates, foods, and reactions. Then, begin noting what they eat.

Getting to the bottom of food allergies and intolerances can seem like trying to scale a mountain, but the payoff is huge!

How Food Allergies Changed Our Lives (for the better)

It may be hard to believe, but there can be a silver lining when handed the diagnosis of food allergies or intolerances. I had to search for a while, but it was there.

Once we discovered that our daughter was allergic to eggs and milk, and was fructose intolerant, we completely changed the way we shopped and cooked.

I did a lot of crying at first; simply because I was so overwhelmed. But then I pulled myself together. I threw the mother-of-the-year award out the window. I started reading labels, and got busy in the kitchen. .

We don’t go out to eat much anymore, but that’s ok. Actually, going out to eat creates a whole set of problems because I have to find out if there’s anything she can eat on the menu (and many times, there isn’t).

The entire family has drastically cut the amount of sugar we eat! I don't have to deal with arguments involving sugary foods anymore because we just can't have them in the house.

We became aware of food labels, and everyone in the family is a proficient reader. There is nothing more entertaining than to watch the expressions on people’s faces when a seven and nine year old discuss sugar content on a box of cereal in the grocery store!

I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It’s made me a better cook, wife and mother. I know exactly what my family is eating, and I can relax knowing that my daughter isn’t going to be sick and miserable later in the day.

I don't feed my family a lot of processed food anymore. Processed food has too many ingredients to decipher! And, one of those ingredients usually includes an encripted version of diary. If I want rice on the menu, then I make it myself.

Behaviorally, she is calmer. She’s not up sick during the night; she’s not crying that her tummy hurts all day long. She can pay attention in class. I had no idea how much it was affecting every aspect of her life!

Her numbers (those IgE numbers) are going down each year, and I am hopeful that one day she will outgrow her allergies.

So, if you’re faced with the possibility of food allergies or intolerances take a deep breath and focus on one day at a time. It will come together for you too.