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Are Food Allergies Getting Worse in Kids?

If you’ve gotten the sense lately that more and more children have food allergies, you’re not imagining things. You’ve spotted a growing trend: Food allergies are, in fact, on the rise.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of food allergies increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 and the specific prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergy appears to have more than tripled in U.S. children. 


There is no definitive explanation for the significant increase. While there are medical theories ranging from processed and genetically modified foods to increased hygiene which limits our immune systems’ ability to build defenses, the more urgent concern is how to help impacted children manage their allergies.   


How children can help manage their own allergies 


If your child is young and at home with you or with a consistent caregiver or childcare facility, it can be relatively straightforward to control their exposure to possible allergens. Once children start school – and spend more time away from you – they may begin to experience the world on “high alert,” constantly mindful of eating in unfamiliar places or from unknown sources.  


While the conscientious approach is well-founded, making sure kids have clear, simple information about what to watch for and how to respond can increase their feeling of control and ease anxiety. You can help them by making sure they know and understand these important things:  


What to look for 


If your child experiences any of these symptoms, they should know to immediate let you or another responsible adult know as soon as possible:  


  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth, eyelid swelling, itchiness all over, skin redness, a few hives or hives all over the body, or a worsening eczema rash  

  • Vomiting or diarrhea 

  • Coughing, choking, wheezing, hoarseness, short of breath or labored breathing  

  • Pale skin; bluish lips, mouth, or fingers; rapid or weak pulse 

  • Fainting or passing out, acting confused 


How to ask for help 


If your child has had an episode of anaphylaxis or a severe allergy, it’s important to have a non-expired epinephrine pen at school as well as at home. For older children, the EpiPen can be carried in a dedicated backpack the child can carry with them; for younger children it should be given to the supervising adult or kept in the health office. It’s important that your EpiPens are not out of date, so if you’re not sure, you’ll want to speak to your pediatrician about whether your EpiPen can still be used. 

How to make your children feel confident communicating their allergies and restrictions  


It’s important for you to begin talking to your child about their allergy as soon as it’s developmentally appropriate. Talk to them about what foods to avoid, be sure they understand not to share food with other kids, help them recognize how their body might react if they’re having an allergic reaction, and explain to them how to seek help if they’re having any allergy symptoms.  

Before your child is fully able to understand their condition, consider getting medical identification jewelry to alert others of a child’s allergy, such as a bracelet with their allergy listed on it. 

You can also help them start to feel more comfortable and empowered by reading books about food allergies with younger children. Help them practice with auto-injector trainers and make up fun hand-washing songs before and after meals. Teach older children how to read food labels and what to look for (some allergens may be listed by more than one name). They should also avoid non-labeled (including homemade) foods, how to recognize symptoms of a reaction and to report bullying if they experience it.  


And the single most important rule all children of any age with food allergies should follow: No sharing food, no exceptions. 


How adults can help 


Of course, preparing your children to advocate for themselves should be just one part of an overall plan that includes informing and educating babysitters, teachers, school nurses, and friends’ parents as well.  


If possible, provide a written “emergency action plan” or “food-allergy action plan” that describes your child’s allergy, what medicines to administer and who to call in case a reaction occurs or an allergic food is ingested. Many schools are now peanut- and tree nut-free zones, but other parents who aren’t familiar with allergies may not know what type of snacks should be avoided or what to look for on a package label. Ask your child’s teacher or pediatrician to help educate other families on what’s safe for your child during lunch, special school parties, or birthday celebrations. 


Is it food intolerance or a food allergy? 


If you think your child may have a food allergy, but you’re not certain, it’s important to check with your child’s pediatrician to confirm your suspicions. This chart may give you a general idea of what to expect from an allergic reaction versus a case of intolerance: 



Food Intolerance 

Food Allergy 


Bloating, gas, cramping, headaches, irritability 

Hives, swollen lips or tongue, coughing, wheezing, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain, trouble swallowing 


Within hours of food consumption 

Almost immediately after food consumption 


Inconsistent, not every time food is eaten 

Every time food is eaten 


Not life threatening 

Potentially life threatening 


Visit FirstKids 

It is possible to successfully manage severe food allergies with a proper plan and partners in place. If your child experiences severe food allergies, talk to one of the medical professionals at FirstKids Urgent Care. They can help you prepare a written plan, ensure medications are up-to-date, and even talk with your child to allay any anxiety or fears.  


FirstKids can also provide back-up care – or provide routine primary care – for wellness check ups and vaccines. We are a walk-in facility serving the Tuscaloosa areas, so there’s no appointment necessary. If it’s more convenient, you can schedule an appointment online here. FirstKids accepts all major insurance plans, as well as Medicaid and self-pay patients as well. 



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