Food allergies

An allergy is the word used to describe a reaction in the body to a particular food or something in the environment.  Food allergies in particular are common in children. Some of these, such as allergies to milk and eggs, generally go away as a child gets older, while others are lifelong.

What’s the difference between an allergy, a sensitivity or an intolerance?

An allergy is when the body physically reacts to a substance it thinks may be harmful. It’s your body’s way of warning you to take action. The reaction will usually happen immediately. It may start off mildly, for example with some itching or redness to skin, but will increase the more the body is exposed to the substance it doesn’t like (the ‘allergen’). Other types of allergies can take longer to develop, for example the skin condition eczema flaring up or experiencing some tummy upset hours after drinking cows’ milk.

Health professionals will say you have a sensitivity if you experience an exaggeration of the normal effects of a particular substance. For example, most people drinking a caffeinated drink will just feel more alert, while others may start to experience more extreme symptoms such as heart palpitations (the heart beating very fast) and trembling.

A food intolerance is where a you experience some unpleasant symptoms after eating a particular food – for example bloating or diarrhoea, but your immune system isn’t activated to respond. People with intolerance to certain foods can typically eat a small amount of the food without problems. An example is lactose intolerance.

How are food allergies diagnosed?

Diagnosing an allergy usually involves taking a detailed clinical history alongside a food exclusion diet, and/or a food challenge and food re-introduction programme. Sometimes there will also be a diagnostic test.

It’s important to get a food allergy properly diagnosed by a medical professional, as restricting your diet can be harmful. You also risk ongoing symptoms with more possible reactions.

If you think your child may have a food allergy, seek advice straightaway from an appropriately qualified health professional such as a GP, paediatrician, public health nurse (health visitor) or dietitian.

Help for people diagnosed with allergies

Depending on the nature of your child’s allergy, they may be referred to hospital to see the specialist allergy team, gastroenterology team, dermatology team or a paediatric dietitian. If your child has one or two food allergies and they don’t need a prescription for an adrenalin auto injector (often known as an ‘epi pen’), then their allergy will often be managed locally  without the need to go to a specialist  clinic.

Useful links

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Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust runs a confidential secure text messaging service for parents of children aged 0-19 years called Chat Health. The service operates Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm, excluding bank holidays. All texts will be responded to by a public health nurse (health visitor/school nurse) within 24 hours. Outside of the service working hours, you’ll receive a message back to inform you that your text will be responded to once the line reopens.

Should you require urgent health advice in the meantime, please contact your GP, visit an NHS walk-in centre or call NHS 111. For emergencies, dial 999 or visit A&E.

Leicester City: text 07520 615381

Leicestershire & Rutland: text 07520 615382

You can also call and speak to a public health nurse on our professional advice line: 0300 3000 007

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