Food Sensitivity in Children

Food sensitivities in children are often mistaken for food allergies, but the two problems are not the same.

Remarkable care for kids

  • Diagnostic accuracy: Food sensitivities often go underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Experts at Rush are committed to finding answers. At the Pediatric Celiac Disease and Food Sensitivity Clinic, experienced pediatric gastroenterologists, allergists and dietitians work together to find the root of any food-related problem your child may have.
  • Real-life solutions: At Rush, pediatricians, pediatric specialists, dietitians and other clinicians understand the needs of children with food allergies and sensitivities. They can work with you to create a plan for the school nurse or teachers to follow when your child has unintended exposure to the foods that trigger their allergic reactions.
  • Family-centered care: As part of Rush University Children’s Hospital, pediatricians, pediatric gastroenterologists, dietitians and asthma specialists are dedicated to family-centered care. They believe your family should play an integral role in determining the best care plan to address your child’s unique needs and lifestyle.

What are food sensitivities?

If your child is allergic to a food, their immune system reacts to that food as though it were a harmful substance. Food sensitivities, however, usually result from the digestive system’s inability to properly digest a food.

Lactose intolerance and gluten

Some food sensitivities are more common than others. For example, many children have lactose intolerance. That means they are missing an enzyme that helps digest a type of sugar found in cow’s milk.

Many children are sensitive to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten intolerance is often linked to celiac disease in children. Some children may not be able to tolerate gluten but do not have celiac disease.

Symptoms of food sensitivity in children?

Talk to your child’s health care provider if you notice food sensitivity symptoms that don’t go away or keep recurring. These include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Bloating and gas
  • Irritability

Care for food sensitivity in children at Rush

Diagnosing food sensitivities

Clinicians at Rush University Children’s Hospital might use one or more of the following approaches to see what is causing your child’s symptoms:

  • Detailed medical history: Your provider will ask you a series of questions. These will include questions about what your child eats and drinks and how long after eating or drinking symptoms occur. This will help your doctor determine if food insensitivity is the cause of your child’s problem.
  • Diagnostic tests: These might include blood tests, upper endoscopy or colonoscopy.
  • Elimination diet: Your child stops eating possible problem foods. Then, they are added back into your child’s diet one by one to find out which ones are causing reactions.
  • Percutaneous skin testing: Doctors place a small amount of the allergen on your child’s skin and then prick the skin so that the substance seeps under the surface.
  • Patch testing: Doctors place a small amount of the suspected allergen directly on your child’s skin.
  • Breath testing: A test that involves drinking a liquid and periodically blowing into a device to help your child’s clinician diagnose lactose intolerance, fructose intolerance and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.

Addressing food sensitivities

Once you know which foods cause your child’s symptoms, the health care team at Rush will work with you and your family to develop strategies to help your child feel his or her best.

Avoidance: Removing foods and beverages containing ingredients that trigger your child’s symptoms can improve your child’s quality of life. Your child’s health care team at Rush will provide you lists of what to avoid.

Nutritional counseling: Dietitians at Rush can help plan a healthy diet for your child. They can educate you and your family on everything from reading ingredient labels to making healthy food substitutions.

Medications: In some cases, medicines can lessen symptoms. For example, if your child has lactose intolerance a lactase enzyme supplement may help.

Tackling root problems: If your doctors suspect celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome as the cause of your child’s symptoms, pediatric gastroenterologists at Rush can develop a treatment plan.

Support: Your child’s health care team at Rush will also give you tips on how to work with your child’s school or child care providers regarding your child’s diet limitations.