Food Allergies and how to prevent peanut allergy in babies

Food Allergies

by Stephanie Spencer |
Updated on

Allergies in baby are common complaints which many grow out of eventually. We share how to learn how to manage a food allergy in the meantime, and also information from a new study about preventing peanut allergies in children.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is when your baby’s immune system has a bad reaction to what is usually a harmless food, and tries to fight it by producing an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). It’s the production of these antibodies that causes the distinct symptoms.

‘It’s thought 5-6 per cent of children under the age of three develop a food allergy in the UK,’ says Dr Carina Venter, an allergy dietitian for the Infant & Toddler Forum. ‘The verdict is still out as to why some people develop food allergies, but we do know that genetic factors play a role.’

Some reactions can be immediate, and quite serious, while others appear a few hours or even days later. In babies and toddlers, foods that are most common are eggs, nuts and a cow's milk allergy. ‘Food intolerances are different to food allergies because they’re not caused by an immune system reaction,’ says Carina. ‘This means they’re not in most cases life threatening, but they can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea.’

What are the symptoms of a food allergy?

Allergic symptoms can be “immediate” or “delayed” in nature. If your baby or toddler is allergic to a food, the symptoms could appear within two hours. He may go into anaphylactic shock, which causes breathing difficulties, swelling of lips and tongue and wheezing. He may get hives, itchy skin, vomiting and sudden diarrhoea. ‘Your baby may also suffer a more delayed reaction, which can include stomach pain, reflux, bloating and wind,’ says Carina.

Your GP may refer your baby to a paediatrician or allergy clinic. ‘For some food allergies, there are skin prick tests to check levels of antibodies that your body produces during a reaction,’ says Carina. In skin testing, a small amount of extract made from the food is placed on the back or arm.

If a raised bump or small hive develops within 20 minutes, it indicates a possible allergy. ‘Most children are diagnosed by a trial elimination diet, where you’ll be asked to completely avoid the suspect food for a certain time, which is then followed by a food challenge, where the food is introduced back into the diet to check the reaction.’

What can you do about a food allergy?

Thankfully, it’s become easier to manage food allergies and intolerances due to food labelling and the wide-range of “free-from” products now available.

Your child may grow out of his allergy, but it can depend on what he’s allergic to. It’s more common to outgrow a cow's milk and egg allergy than it is to outgrow a peanut allergy.

New research preventing peanut allergies in children

A new NIH study has found that by introducing peanuts in infancy, you can prevent peanut allergy later on all the way into adolescence. They have found that the protection lasts no matter how often children eat peanuts then throughout their childhood. The NIH Study found that "Feeding children peanut products regularly from infancy to age 5 years reduced the rate of peanut allergy in adolescence by 71%, even when the children ate or avoided peanut products as desired for many years."

Participants in the trial regularly consumed peanut products from weaning through to 5 years of age,, with the control group avoiding peanut products during this period. Findings showed that early introduction reduced the risks of peanut allergy at 5 years by 81 per cent. Participants were then asked to avoid eating peanut products between the ages 5 to 6 years, and findings showed that those who had eaten peanut products during their earlier years remained protected from peanut allergy at age 6. The study continued to monitor whether the protection lasted, and it did, no matter how frequently peanut products were consumed later on.

How to reduce the risk of peanut allergy

If you want your child to have the opportunity to enjoy peanut products without the risk of developing an allergy, which can be life-threatening, introducing peanut products early on, prefereably during weaning, is a really good idea, according to the above research. Gideon Lack, professor of paediatric allergy at King’s College London via The Guardian says, "I strongly recommend that babies are introduced to peanuts by four months if they have eczema and by six months if they don’t have eczema". This is because if your baby has eczema they may be more prone to developing peanut allergies.

How quickly will a baby react to peanut butter?

You might be nervous about introducing your baby to peanut products for the first time. The NHS advises to make sure they are well and that any eczema is well-controlled. You should be at home and be able to observe your baby for at least two hours after they have eaten the food containing peanuts, as this is usually when any potential allergic reaction to the peanuts will occur.

Most importantly, do not feed whole peanuts to your baby as this is a choking hazard. This includes coursely chopped peanuts or chunky peanut butter if your child is under five years. Peanuts should either be ground finely with no lumps and added to food. Alternatively you can try smooth peanut butter.

Signs of peanut allergy in baby

Mild to moderate signs to look out for include:

  • hives, welts or wheals (a red, lumpy rash, like mosquito bites)

  • a tingling feeling in or around the mouth

  • stomach pain, vomiting and/or diarrhea (loose poo)

  • facial swelling.

If your baby has a more serious allergic reaction they may go into anaphylactic shock and the following symptoms will be present:

  • difficulty with breathing and/or noisy breathing

  • wheeze or persistent cough

  • swelling of the tongue

  • swelling and/or tightness in the throat

  • difficulty talking or hoarse voice

  • loss of consciousness or collapse

  • becoming pale and floppy (infants/young children).

When to see your GP

If your baby has any immediate reactions to food. ‘This is especially the case if your baby or toddler has an anaphylactic shock,’ says Carina. Bad cases of diarrhoea and vomiting should also be looked into, so go straight to your GP if this happens.

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