There has been a dramatic rise in allergic diseases both in South Africa and globally in recent years; so much so that we are finding ourselves in the midst of what we may call an “allergy epidemic”.
According to the Allergy Foundation of South Africa, a baby without any family history of allergies now has a 15% risk of developing an allergic condition within their first few years of life. If one parent has an allergy, the child’s risk increases to between 40% and 50%. If both parents have an allergy, the risk increases to between 60% and 80%. A child who has siblings with allergies also has a significantly increased risk of developing allergies.
Can you lower your child’s risk?
Yes. “Allergy prevention should already begin during pregnancy,” says Dr Thulja Trikamjee, a specialist paediatrician and allergologist who practices at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg. “As the foetus develops, so too does the baby’s immune system. As the baby develops its own antibodies, exposure to potential allergens at this time can assist in preventing them from developing allergies to these substances,” she explains.
“When you eat something, tiny little food proteins from the food pass through the umbilical cord to the foetus. If this continues through pregnancy, the baby’s immune system starts to recognise these food proteins. This process continues after birth and after the baby starts eating solids,” adds Dr Trikamjee.
She suggests pregnant moms include the following in their pregnancy diet:
- Eat a healthy balanced diet, including food from all of the major food groups.
- Do not cut out, or reduce your consumption of, any specific allergenic foods, such as dairy, egg, seafood and nuts, unless you have a confirmed allergy to any of these food items.
- Avoid smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
- Consider increasing your intake of oily fish, or taking an omega supplement.
- Introduce solids, and allergenic foods in particular, to your baby at an early stage. Between four and six months has been found to be the most beneficial.
Opt for a natural birth if possible
“From the perspective of a child’s immune system, natural birth is considered preferable over a C-section. Natural birth is not always possible, however, and moms should discuss their particular medical histories and preferences with their obstetrician,” advises Dr Trikamjee.
“Breast milk contains numerous immune factors and properties, which can assist in allergy prevention, as well as protect babies from infections. This is why we recommend newborns are breastfed until at least four months of age, if possible,” says Dr Trikamjee.
Once again Dr Trikamjee advises not to avoid any specific food groups while breastfeeding, unless you have a confirmed allergy to a specific food or foods, as this will continue to expose your baby to trace amounts of food proteins via your breast milk.
What foods can cause an allergic reaction?
Any food can cause an allergic reaction. However, the main allergenic food groups that cause the majority of reactions in children include:
- Cow’s milk
- Tree nuts
How do I know that my child is allergic?
“There are many symptoms with which an allergic reaction can present. Often, when it comes to food, the reaction will occur the first time your child eats a specific food,” says Dr Trikamjee.
Symptoms to look out for include the following:
- Upset stomach
- Diarrhoea or bloody stools
- Difficulty breathing
- Change in consciousness or activity.
Diagnosing and testing for a food allergy
Tests for allergies can either be performed on the skin, or by drawing blood.
Skin prick tests
- A liquid containing the allergen, or a protein extract, is placed on your child’s forearm. The skin is then pierced with a small sterile lancet. This is not a needle that goes through the skin and therefore will not draw blood and does not hurt.
- The doctor will then wait 10 to 15 minutes before analysing the reaction on the skin.
- This reaction is measured in millimetres and gives an idea of how sensitive your child is to the food substance that was tested.
Specific IgE testing
- For this test, blood is drawn and sent to a pathology laboratory.
- Your child’s blood will be exposed to the allergen proteins, and a laboratory analyst with experience in allergy tests, will assess how many Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies are reactive to the allergen your child has.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both tests, and an allergist will usually decide which is the most appropriate to use, based on your child’s age, reaction and background.
Can children outgrow their allergies?
Most children outgrow their allergies. For example, a large proportion of children outgrow milk, egg and many nut allergies. However, an allergy specialist will be able to guide you through the process to the point where your child is able to safely overcome their food allergy.
“As much as food allergies are on the rise, so too is our knowledge on this subject, and the management and treatment of food allergies has drastically improved over the last decade. Gone are the days when children have to spend their lives in fear of accidental exposure to an allergic food or substance,” says Dr Trikamjee.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day. Learn more about Xanet Scheepers.