For some parents, every snack a child picks up can feel scary – when that child suffers from a severe food allergy.  Research over the last 10 years has shown it’s possible to help children avoid developing food allergies. And not every response to food is actually an allergic reaction.

Here’s what you need to know to reduce parenting stress and increase your child’s safety.

An allergic reaction is different from a food intolerance or sensitivity.

Food sensitivity or food intolerance usually refers to the inability of the digestive system to properly break down a certain type of food. Trouble digesting a type of food can be caused by an enzyme deficiency, by sensitivity to food additives, or by reactions to naturally occurring chemicals in foods. Often, people can eat small amounts of a food they’re sensitive to without it causing them problems.

For example, you may hear about lactose intolerance, which refers to a person’s trouble drinking milk or eating ice cream. When someone has lactose intolerance, their body doesn’t make enough enzymes to digest the lactose in cow’s milk, so their body might respond to a milkshake with bloating or other stomach issues.

An allergic reaction is an excessive response by the body’s immune system when exposed to an allergen or trigger. Your immune system controls how your body defends itself. An allergic reaction can be mild or serious and isn’t limited to the stomach. Reactions can include swelling, trouble breathing, a rash, vomiting, and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness.

For example, when you have an allergy to cow’s milk, your body will identify cow’s milk as an invader or allergen. Then your immune system overreacts, producing antibodies. Those antibodies travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.

While a food intolerance may be uncomfortable, an allergic reaction can be severe and life-threatening. For more on the difference between food intolerance and  food allergies, see this article from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. 

Nine types of food are responsible for 90 percent of allergic reaction.

While any food has the potential to lead to an allergic reaction in some people, these nine types of food account for about 90 percent of all reactions

  • Eggs
  • Milk and dairy
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Sesame was recently added to this list and is an ingredient found in popular foods like hummus under the name “tahini,” which is a ground sesame paste similar to peanut butter.

As parents identify potential causes of allergies, it’s important to note that a peanut allergy and a tree nut allergy are not the same thing. Peanuts grow in the ground and are legumes, like peas and lima beans. Almond, cashews, walnuts, and pecans are considered tree nuts, because unlike peanuts, they grow on trees.

Breastfeeding may reduce a baby’s risk of developing food allergies.

Feeding a baby breast milk has many documented benefits and is known to lower the risk for developing skin conditions such as eczema and atopic dermatitis. But research is mixed on whether breastfeeding can reduce the risk of food allergies.

The recommended approach is to use breast milk only for the first four to six months. But, even when babies are fed both breast milk and formula, they can benefit. Nursing parents don’t have to eat any special diet and don’t have to avoid foods that can cause allergic reactions. In fact, some experts believe that when a mom eats those foods, the baby gets extra protection through the mother’s breast milk.

Talk to your pediatrician about food choices that can help young children avoid developing allergies at they grow up.

Once a baby begins to eat foods like fruits and vegetables, parents can start introducing other foods that might cause reactions. By starting early with small amounts of these foods, parents can often help a child avoid developing allergies.

It’s always wise to talk to a pediatrician about a child’s reactions to foods, how best to introduce foods, and your specific concerns. Not everything that appears to be a food allergy may be one.

Parents should be cautious. But they have good reasons to be encouraged! With more information about food allergies, they can make better choices that reduce fear, avoid serious risks, and help children tolerate food better.

It’s always wise to talk to a pediatrician about your child’s reactions to foods, how best to introduce foods, and your specific concerns. With more information about food allergies, you can make better choices that reduce fear, avoid serious risks, and help children tolerate food better.