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Childhood food allergies in the UK: Triggers, treatment, and health insurance

Almost 1 in 12 young children suffer from a food allergy, according to Allergy UK. Food allergies have been around for generations and happen when the immune system responds negatively to food proteins.

Unfortunately, children are more susceptible than adults as their immune systems are at a heightened state, and tend to overreact. This is why as parents, it is imperative to understand what food allergies are, what the symptoms to these allergies are, and how to treat them. With the right understanding and approach, your child will have a better chance of recovery.

Find out more about symptoms, causes, and treatment for many common allergies in this article by Pacific Prime UK.

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What is a food allergy?

Food allergies (food-hypersensitivity reactions) occur when the body’s immune system becomes confused and reacts to harmless food proteins due to the creation of Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. When food proteins are present, the IgE antibodies recognize and attach to the proteins. This triggers a reaction in the body, which leads to the release of a chemical called histamine. The chemical, histamine, is what causes redness or swelling/hives and other symptoms.

Take note: More severe reactions are called anaphylaxis, and this may be life-threatening. In such a case, it is advised to seek immediate medical attention. Children are at higher risk, but adults who have food allergies must also be aware of the risks.

Common types of food allergens for children

According to The Association of UK Dieticians, the most common food allergens are:

  1. Cow’s milk
  2. Chicken eggs
  3. Shellfish or crustaceans like prawns, crabs, and lobsters
  4. Fish
  5. Soy
  6. Peanuts
  7. Wheat or cereals containing gluten such as barley and oats
  8. Tree nuts e.g. hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashew, and pistachio nuts.

These eight allergens account for roughly 90% of allergic reactions in children. It is best to speak to a qualified dietician or visit an allergy clinic who can perform certain diagnostic tests on your children to detect any of the above allergies.

Other allergens to be aware of include:

  1. Celery
  2. Lupin
  3. Molluscs such as mussels and oysters
  4. Mustard
  5. Sulphur dioxide and sulphites
  6. Sesame

In the UK, food businesses must inform consumers under the food law, if any of the above ingredients have been used in the food and drinks provided.

Introducing foods that could trigger an allergy in newborns

Breastfeeding is recommended for around the first 6 months of a newborn’s life. This ensures your child receives the right amount of protein, sugar, fat, and most vitamins to help promote development and growth. According to the NHS (National Health Service), pregnant or breastfeeding, women do not need to avoid foods that can trigger allergic reactions unless they have a specific food allergy already.

Take note: For breastfeeding issues or intention to use the first infant formula, talk to your local general practitioner (GP) for guidance on what kind of formula to give your child.

Weaning and monitoring for food allergies

The Department of Health and Social Care recommends that high allergic foods including cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, gluten, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, and seeds can be introduced from the age of 6 months. Just make sure that they are well and fully-cooked, and mashed for your child to easily swallow.

Solid foods should be introduced one at a time, with a gap of 3 to 4 days in between each new food. Doing so will help make it easier to identify any food that causes a reaction.

Other points to consider, include:

  • Make several attempts to mix different foods and increase the variety of food available.
  • Do seek the advice of a dietician, who can recommend recipes for your child.
  • The British Nutrition Foundation has some relevant material and information relating to an infant’s nutrition.

Monitor possible allergic reactions

It is important to monitor any reactions or symptoms as indicated in the section above. Another point worth mentioning is to make sure your child is well and healthy at the time of introduction to new foods. In other words, the child should not have a high temperature or show symptoms of fever or illness.

Keep a food and symptom diary

From age 6 months you should keep a food and symptom diary to help keep track of any foods that could put your child at risk and can be used for reference at your local GP.

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What are the main symptoms of food allergies in babies and children?

Below are the symptoms of an immediate food allergy:

  • A flushed red face, an itchy and irritating rash around the mouth, tongue, nose, or eyes. (These can also appear in other areas of the body – at the surface level)
  • Mild swelling or hives, particularly of the lips, nose, eyes, and face.
  • A runny or blocked nose, constant sneezing, and watering eyes.
  • Nausea and vomiting, tummy cramps, and in some cases diarrhoea (similar to food poisoning).
  • Coughing or swelling of the throat.
  • Chest tightness or wheezing (high-pitched whistling when breathing), similar to a severe asthma attack.
  • Swelling of the tongue and throat, which can restrict the airways and cause noisy breathing.
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure (called hypotension) leading to shock.
  • Dizziness or confusion.
  • Loss of consciousness and sometimes coma.

Take note: If your child loses consciousness, you must immediately seek medical attention by dialling 999 and requesting for a paediatric specialist or ambulance.

Food allergy diagnosis at your local GP

If mild to moderate symptoms show and you suspect there to be a food allergy, make an appointment with your GP. At this point, you are advised to bring along your food and symptoms diary which will help in giving the GP a better overview of the situation. Be prepared to be asked the following questions:

  • How long did it take for the symptoms to start after exposure to the food?
  • How long did the symptoms last?
  • How severe were the symptoms?
  • Is this the first time these symptoms have occurred? If not, how often have they occurred?
  • What food was involved and how much of it did your child eat?

The GP may also want to know about your child’s medical history and/or that of the family as well, such as:

  • Are there any other allergies or allergic conditions?
  • Is there a history of allergies in the family?
  • Was (or is) your child breastfed or bottle-fed?

If the GP concludes that there is indeed a possible food allergy, the decision may be made to refer your child to a clinic for testing.

Testing at an allergy clinic

If the symptoms develop quickly due to an IgE-mediated food allergy, your child may probably be given a skin-prick test or receive a blood test.

  • Skin-prick test involves putting a drop of liquid onto the forearm that contains a food allergen. The skin under the drop is then gently pricked. If an allergy is found, a red bump will appear within 15 mins. This test may be uncomfortable for your child but is deemed safe as it happens within a controlled medical environment.
  • Blood tests involve taking a sample of your child’s blood and analyzing for specific antibodies that are produced by the immune system in response to an allergen.

See the NHS website for other diagnostic tests for food allergies such as a food elimination diet, here.

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Treatments for food allergies

For the treatment of food allergies, 2 main types of medication can be used to relieve symptoms of an allergic reaction:

1. Antihistamines – These work by blocking the effects of histamine, which is mainly responsible for the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Antihistamines can be administered orally or injected. Young children may need supervision to ensure the right dosage is taken.

Take note: Some antihistamines, such as alimemazine and promethazine, are not suitable for children under the age of 2. For children under the age of two, ask your GP about the types of antihistamines that may be suitable. 

2. Adrenaline – This hormone or medication belongs to a group of medicines used for the treatment of serious shock produced by a severe allergic reaction. The administration of adrenaline is normally through an auto-injector and works by narrowing the blood vessels to counteract the effects of low blood pressure and ease breathing difficulties.

Speak to your local GP who can provide more information on treatments and what to do if your child experiences an allergic reaction.

Tips for parents raising a child with food allergies

As parents, we all want the best for our child and this means ensuring the diet is well managed. For children with allergies, parents can check on the following tips to help manage food allergies:

1. Get cooking – By cooking meals for your child, you will know exactly what goes into every dish.

2. Study and do your research – Parents are encouraged to reach out to medical professionals that can help guide and form food plans that are manageable and meet the needs of your child’s diet. Here are a few sources to get started:

3. Check for allergy-friendly cafes and restaurants in your community – See Lifelab Testing for a list of cafes, restaurants, and venues that are allergen-friendly in the UK.

4. Get family health insurance cover for your child and the rest of the family – With a growing young family, the last thing a parent wants is for their child to seriously become ill due to a food allergy, especially an infant. With a health insurance plan, your child can be covered for a range of treatments for food allergies across many top private hospitals across the UK. With the NHS experiencing issues ranging from limited GP availability, long-waiting times for tests, and much more, going private may be the best solution for families with young children.

Speak to an expert at Pacific Prime UK

Pacific Prime UK is a brokerage firm based in London that offers local and international insurance solutions from many reputable insurance companies for individuals, families, and businesses. These plans include:

With over 20 years of experience representing the interests of a diverse range of clients including families from all walks of life, Pacific Prime can match the right solutions to your insurance needs and budget in person, by phone, or online.

Contact us today!

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Content Creator at Pacific Prime UK
Jimmy is a content writer who helps simplify insurance for readers interested in international private medical insurance. He is on a mission in the UK to support locals, expatriates, and businesses by bring the latest news and updates to his Pacific Prime blog articles.

His expert view and wealth of knowledge on insurance can also be found in his blogs for the UK, China, Dubai, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore.