Food allergies in children are on the rise worldwide, and medical experts are searching for clues why.
Barbados, of course, has not been exempt from the worrying trend. In fact, paediatrician Dr Ranita Jhagroo points out that food allergies may not be as uncommon as we might think.
“We do see food allergies in children for sure, and, as the years go by, it’s becoming more and more common. Certainly in the last ten years that I have been practising pediatrics, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in it,” she told Health Today.
The doctor explained that an allergy was an exaggerated response of the immune system in people or children to something that would be considered quite ordinary – whether it was a food particle, whether it was dust, or something like a bee sting.
“One person would eat a nut and have no problems with it; and another person could eat a nut and the response could be quite drastic, which would range from something called hives or urticaria, which is the medical word for bumps on the skin, that can be quite swollen and very itchy, to wheezing . . . .
“The mucous membranes can also become so swollen that the person can’t actually breathe.”
According to Dr Jhagroo, more and more, the increase in food allergies in children is being linked to the very early introduction to solids.
“So we do urge parents, if possible, to hold off until [the children] are about six months before introducing foods.”
She also stresses that the rate of food introduction and weaning are critical factors parents must be aware of.
“Things like nuts should be held off until after the age of two – and eggs as well. If you are going to give eggs early, you should stick to egg yellow, and not bring the egg white in until [the children] are over 15 months.”
Dr Jhagroo revealed that breastfeeding had been associated with the reduced incidence of food allergies, and she challenged mothers to nurse their babies for at least one year.
The most common food allergy relates to nuts, but the paediatrician explained it was likely to surface at an early age only if children were exposed to nuts well before the age of two.
“You will find the first two years they are free of any issues and then once they are exposed to nuts or they are coming in contact with other children eating nuts or peanut butter or nutella, around the age of four or five, they suddenly have a reaction . . . . That is how certain allergic reactions can present themselves.”
In addition to nuts, milk and some fruits are also triggers.
“Common food allergies include cow’s milk protein. It is more of an intolerance, but it is a food allergy . . . and then there are certain foods that people can have issues with, and one of the common ones is all the types of nuts that are out there – even peanut butter; and then some of the fruits, the strawberries, the blueberries and things like that.”
Dr Jhagroo points out that severe allergic reactions to food are very easy to pick up, but the problem should be dealt with the first time around.
“Let us go back to the nuts or the peanut butter. A child might say their tummy feels a little funny, a little bit nauseated. You may start seeing a rash of sorts gradually appearing on the skin and they may start scratching this rash. You may see their lips looking a bit swollen, and their eyes may look a bit swollen too. If you happen to ignore it, because the symptoms are so mild, the next time they are exposed to it, the reaction is often worse.”
In severe cases, the doctor says, the child can suffer an anaphylaxis reaction.
“More than just the urticaria, or the hives, they can also have swelling of the eyes, the lips, the mouth and swelling of the larynx. They can have difficulty breathing, and they actually start wheezing.”
There are no cures for food allergies. Still, Dr Jhagroo maintains there’s no need for alarm, and she advises parents and caregivers to focus on prevention.
“It is better to pick up what food substance is causing the allergy early, so we can first of all eliminate it from their diet; and secondly if the reaction was at any point a bad one, identify exactly what it is. For example, when we say a nut allergy, you can have an allergic reaction to peanuts but not necessarily almonds.
“Furthermore, once the child has been identified with a nut allergy, for example, we make sure that they have certain things like an EpiPen, so that if they are having a reaction they can actually administer the medicine themselves.”