Food intolerances are common, with 15%-20% of people in the United States having at least one. With kids, food intolerances are diagnosed when something they eat irritates their digestive tract or they lack the enzymes needed to digest a certain food.
Don’t confuse food intolerances with food allergies, which involve the immune system. A food allergy occurs when the body attacks a usually safe substance. Food allergies can be life-threatening.
Food intolerances can be annoying and uncomfortable, but they won’t cause a severe reaction like anaphylaxis.
If you suspect your child has a food intolerance, the experienced team of pediatric specialists at Laurel Pediatric & Teen Medical Center can help find the cause. If the symptoms suggest a food allergy, we can test them for allergies and offer treatment, including an epinephrine pen.
Here are five signs that may indicate your child has a food intolerance rather than an allergy.
1. Symptoms occur with digestion
When your child has a food intolerance, they have trouble digesting a particular food. That means most symptoms of a food intolerance occur in the digestive tract. Suspect a food intolerance if your child has symptoms such as:
- Tummy ache
- Passing excessive gas
For example, lactose intolerance is a common condition that causes symptoms from eating or drinking cow-based dairy products. With lactose intolerance, your child may complain of the above symptoms after consuming milk or ice cream.
2. Symptoms appear relatively quickly
Food intolerance symptoms usually occur within minutes to hours after eating a triggering food; food allergy symptoms often take time to develop.
When your child eats a food they can’t tolerate, and it makes its way through their digestive tract, symptoms might start with an upset tummy and end in nausea or diarrhea.
3. Symptoms depend on the amount consumed
Food intolerances often develop in reaction to foods eaten regularly or in excess.
So, for example, you suspect your child can’t tolerate dairy and have removed milk and other cow’s milk products from their diet. After they consume dairy alternatives for a while, they might have a regular ice cream cone at a party and experience no symptoms.
That’s not a sign that your child no longer has a food intolerance for dairy. In fact, it could confirm your initial suspicion. Going through a period without the food allows the digestive system to recover enough to tolerate a small amount.
4. Symptoms include heartburn
Heartburn can indicate a food intolerance. Your child may be sensitive to foods high in acid or that lower pressure in the esophagus so that acid travels back up the throat. Foods that cause heartburn include:
- Spicy foods
Over-the-counter medications aren’t the answer for your child’s heartburn. Instead, try an elimination diet, helping your child avoid foods that could cause their discomfort.
5. Symptoms include headaches or migraines
Food intolerances are a known trigger for headaches, particularly migraines. Headaches may be food-related if they regularly occur about 20 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking an offending substance.
Many children (and adults) have an intolerance for processed foods that contain triggering chemicals, such as MSG or artificial sweeteners.
Identifying a food intolerance
Because your child likely consumes a variety of food and beverages every day, it can be hard to determine what’s causing their symptoms.
For this reason, we recommend an elimination diet, in which your child avoids the most common triggers of food intolerances for a set period. Foods to avoid on an elimination diet include:
- Dairy (cow’s milk) products
If that fails to resolve their symptoms, we may recommend eliminating other items, such as fructose and nightshades. Once your child is symptom-free, we gradually test each item by adding it back, one at a time.
If you suspect your child has an intolerance or allergy to a specific food, reach out to Laurel Pediatric & Teen Medical Center in Bel Air, Maryland, today. Call or use the online tool to schedule your appointment.