Food allergies are becoming more and more common in children. Bupa’s Bianca Parau explains about some of the most common food allergies in children – milk and egg – and ways to help your child if they’re diagnosed.
As a paediatric dietitian, I see many children with food allergies, with varying severities. It can be a worry and stress for both the child and the parents. But with healthy, tasty alternatives now readily available, you can avoid unwanted reactions – with a little bit of planning and education.
What is a food allergy?
Put simply, a food allergy is when your body’s immune system overreacts to particular foods. A food allergy can develop when your body produces an antibody in response to a specific protein in a food. Your body does this because it thinks the protein is harmful – when in fact it isn’t. So the next time you eat that food, you’ll have a reaction, because your immune system fights the protein. This then causes the classic symptoms of a food allergy.
Common food allergies in children
Cow’s milk allergy and egg allergy are two of the most common food allergies in children – but in most cases, they do tend to be outgrown during childhood. Peanut and tree nut allergies are also common in the UK. Other main food allergies include soya, wheat, fish and shellfish, sesame and kiwi. But for now, let’s concentrate on the most common childhood ones – milk and egg.
Having an allergy to cow’s milk is common in babies and children. Although many children will grow out of this, it’s important to offer suitable alternatives to meet their nutritional needs if you remove dairy from their diet. Alternative infant milks are available on prescription – make sure you talk to your GP and/or dietitian about what’s the best option for your child.
In addition to having many other health-related benefits, breast milk provides all the nourishment your baby needs. If your baby is diagnosed with a cow’s milk allergy while you’re breastfeeding, you may need to cut dairy out of your own diet. If you’re not breastfeeding and your baby is diagnosed with a cow’s milk allergy, they will be prescribed a suitable ‘hypoallergenic’ formula milk.
Children over two
If your child has an allergy to cow’s milk, doctors recommend that you continue with a hypoallergenic formula until they are two. However, your dietitian may recommend that you can change to an alternative milk substitute sooner if they’re happy with your child’s diet on the whole. This decision is made on an individual basis.
Alternatives include soya, oat and coconut, to name a few. These can be enjoyed as a main milky drink after your child is two. Some things to remember:
- Make sure the milk alternative is fortified with calcium. This mineral is essential to your child’s bone health and general development.
- Avoid giving rice milk to your child before they are four-and-a-half years old.
- Other animal milks such as goat’s and sheep’s milk are not suitable alternatives. If your child is allergic to cow’s milk, there is a higher chance that they may have a reaction to other animal milks.
Above all, get advice from a recognised health professional for food allergies and exclusion diets. A dietitian will then be able to support you and your child through your child’s early years – a time when calcium from a milk source is crucial.
Although egg allergy is common among children, most will grow out of it. But it’s very important to see your GP so you can be referred to an allergy specialist if you think your child has an allergy to egg.
Your child might be allergic to:
- all forms of egg, whether they are cooked or not
- only raw egg or slightly cooked egg
Even if your child has an egg allergy, they may still be able to eat baked foods that contain egg, such as cakes and biscuits. But for those who are allergic to even well-cooked egg, the reaction can be severe, so it’s important to avoid all products that contain it.
Here are my top tips for dealing with an egg allergy.
- Check the label. By law, all foods sold in the EU that contain egg have to clearly list it in the ingredients – no matter how small the amount.
- Tell your waiter or waitress when eating out and about. It’s easy to stock egg-free products at home, but it can be trickier to find them when you’re out and about. Make sure you let the staff in a restaurant know that your child has an egg allergy.
- Check your supermarket’s website. They usually have a list of products that they stock that are free from egg. Check out the ‘Free from’ ranges in the supermarket aisles too. There are many egg-free products available, such as egg-free mayonnaise.
- Use egg replacers. Although egg replacers have no nutritional value, they can be useful to have in your cupboard at home for baking and cooking. You can get these from pharmacies and health food shops.
- Find egg-free recipes. Look online for egg-free cake and muffin recipes, and other egg-free cooking ideas.
Egg allergy and vaccinations
Some vaccines contain traces of egg and therefore shouldn’t be given to children who have an egg allergy. The MMR vaccine and flu vaccines are considered safe for children with an egg allergy. However, the yellow fever vaccine may contain traces of egg and so shouldn’t be given to your child if they have an allergy. Speak to your GP or vaccination nurse for more information.
It can be a worry finding out that your child has a milk or egg allergy. But with a little planning and thought, and the right support, it doesn’t have to be too much of a stress. What’s important is that you keep on top of what your child is eating and offer suitable alternatives. Your GP, allergy specialist and dietitian are all there to support you and your child.
For further information on food allergy in both adults and children, visit our information on food allergy.
Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available for your loved ones when you need it.