Food allergies are a scary reality for many people. In the worst cases, a person can even go into anaphylactic shock after consuming a food they are allergic to, which is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. With more media attention spotlighting this very real danger, is it any wonder that today's parents are increasingly suspicious of food allergies showing up in their own children?
A recent study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology compiled data on food allergies in children since 1988, and found that the number of children being self-diagnosed as having a food allergy by their parents or caregivers has risen sharply in the past two decades. While we can't tell if these self-diagnoses are due to a true food allergy or not, this sharp increase is alarming to health professionals who work with food allergies in children.
Here are four main pitfalls to look out for if you suspect your child may have a food allergy:
Pitfall No. 1: Assuming a symptom is caused by a particular food. "Self-diagnosing a food allergy can be so difficult because symptoms don't always show up right away after a problem food is eaten," says dietitian Sarah Koszyk, who is the pediatric specialist with MV Nutrition in San Francisco. "Also, some symptoms, such as a stomach ache or itchy skin, can be caused by any number of things. A parent might suspect a dairy allergy if seeing a skin rash, when the child could be allergic to the laundry detergent!"
Food allergies can cause maddeningly vague symptoms, such as tummy aches, runny nose or itchy skin. If you suspect you might be dealing with a food allergy, try keeping a food/symptom log for a week or so. Write down everything your child eats and what time, and also jot down symptoms that appear. Do not be tempted to restrict your child's diet, however -- the goal is to have a log to present to your child's doctor, to help with the diagnosis. Of course, if your child experiences more severe symptoms, such as swelling of the lips or mouth area, seek medical treatment immediately.
[Read: 5 Must-Read Myths About Food Allergies .]
Pitfall No. 2: Changing the diet before a diagnosis. It can be tempting to tinker with your child's diet, to see if you can help him or her feel better. However, health professionals tend to advise against doing this. First of all, food allergies are much easier to diagnose when the food is still in the diet -- once the food is removed, it becomes much more difficult to get an accurate diagnosis. Second, eliminating certain foods means that certain key nutrients are also being removed, often without a good replacement. Koszyk notes that she frequently sees families that have eliminated wheat from the family diet without an actual medical diagnosis to do so. If the families don't substitute other sources of fiber or nutrients typically provided by wheat products, the child can become deficient.
Pitfall No. 3: Falling prey to quackery. Some food allergy testing is considered more reliable than others. There also exists a shady element to food allergy testing, with some practitioners delivering allergy testing and advice without valid medical evidence supporting it. Additionally, the research on food allergies is constantly evolving, and protocols change as evidence emerges and testing improves. For this reason, it's very important to work through your child's pediatrician for a referral to a qualified allergy specialist.
Pitfall No. 4: Going it alone after a diagnosis. If you need to eliminate a food from your child's diet, especially if it ends up being a major food such as wheat or milk, consider making an appointment with a registered dietitian trained in food allergies. "Restricting diets leaves more room for missing out on key nutrients," Koszyk says. A dietitian will help you ensure you're adding those nutrients in with foods that are safe, and will also help you navigate food ingredients so you're better equipped at avoiding hidden sources of the food.
Melinda Johnson, MS, RDN, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and a Clinical Assistant Professor for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University. Follow her on Twitter@MelindaRD.