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SIOUX CITY -- A food allergy can cause a child to have a very serious, sometimes deadly reaction.

That's why Dr. Steven Joyce, an internist and pediatrician with Mercy Medical Center, said it is important to recognize an allergic reaction and know what to do when it happens.

"I don't think we're seeing an increase in childhood food allergies," Joyce explained. "I just think kids are being expose to a greater variety of foods." 

So, what is a food allergy, anyway? It's what happens when a body reacts as though a particular food is harmful. As a result, a body's immune system creates antibodies to fight off the food allergen. 

Having said that, the most common food allergens are eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts (like walnuts and cashews), fish and shellfish (such as shrimp).

"Some people would add milk to that category," Joyce said. "But that may be an intolerance to lactose as opposed to a true allergy."

In general, many kids outgrew food allergies as they grow older. But others, such as peanuts allergies, may stick around for a lifetime.

However, Joyce said very early exposure to certain foods can keep a child from experiencing discomfort.

"If a nut allergy runs in a family, giving a child a taste at a very early age may prevent a future problem," he said.

As early as 5- or 6-months old, a child can be given a certain food as a test for an allergy.

"An infant can be given a certain fruit or milk product to see if he can tolerate it," Joyce said. 

When you know a child has a severe allergy to a certain food, Joyce recommends carrying an epinephrine auto-injector in the event of an emergency.

"An epinephrine auto-injector comes in a small, easy-to-carry container," he said. "If a child is old enough, he can be taught to give himself an injection if needed."

If not, a caregiver should have easy access to the epinephrine.

This is especially true if a child shows any symptoms of anaphylaxis. That can include hoarseness, throat tightening, swelling in the mouth or trouble breathing.  

Under such circumstance, call 911 and take the child to the emergency room immediately.

These are the most extreme cases.

Less troubling --and more common -- symptoms may include coughing, hoarseness, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, itchy, watery or swollen eyes, hives, red sports and swelling.

"Food allergies can be severe and the only remedy would be to stay away from the food," Joyce said. "Other food allergies are actually food intolerance. They can be unpleasant but seldom dangerous."   

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