Next time you hear a mum complain that her baby is allergic to cow's milk or that her toddler has an allergy to egg, don't be too quick to believe her. There's a good chance it's complete codswallop.
As many as 20 of adults and 6-8 believed it could be a food intolerance, while the remaining 60 visited a medical professional to find out the truth.
"Many parents decide their child has an allergy after using an over-the-counter testing kit, which are notoriously untrustworthy," says Lisa Miles, registered nutritionist and spokesperson for the Nutrition Society.
"And we regularly come across parents who don't even get that far, claiming their child has a food intolerance after they have vomited or had diarrhea only one time."
It's not just the fact that parents make such unsubstantiated claims that's a concern. Many of them put their children at risk of nutritional deficiencies as a result.
"A worrying number of parents simply remove foods they believe their child is allergic to without seeking any medical advice," says Miles. "The most common example is dairy. But if you remove dairy without good reason, your child misses out on everything from calcium, which helps prevent osteoporosis, to vitamin B12, which is important for blood health and nerve function."
Even simply replacing the food you think your child is intolerant to with something else can cause problems. A child with a true allergy to cow's milk, for instance, won't thank you for swapping it for sheep's milk or even soya milk, both of which they're also likely to react to.
Paediatric dietitian Melissa Little, who is also baby nutrition expert of the Essential Baby Care Guide DVDs, adds that goat's milk and rice milk can also be dangerous: "Goat's milk does not contain adequate calcium levels and rice milk contains high levels of arsenic, therefore neither of them are recommend for children and can cause long-term harm."
Nobody gets more irate about the rise in mistaken parents than those whose kids genuinely suffer. "The moment I tell a restaurant that my daughter has food allergies, eyes roll because they assume I'm one of those over-reactionary parents and that's really frustrating," says Lisa Fursman, whose 14-year-old daughter is diagnosed as being allergic to peanuts, fish, eggs, sesame seeds, strawberries and raspberries, among other things.
"There's no doubt that getting a medical diagnosis can be a headache," she admits. "But it's such a complex issue that it's inevitable."
For starters, allergies, which involve your immune system, are different from food intolerances, which are non-immune, explains Sasha Watkins, allergy dietitian and spokesperson for the BDA.
"This means that food allergies lead to an immediate and often severe reaction, with symptoms such as breathing problems, swollen lips or tongue, swelling of the eyes, itchy mouth, ears of throat, eczema or asthma, a rash or anaphylactic shock.
"Symptoms of food intolerance, on the other hand, are often delayed, even up to a couple of days, and include bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, reflux, poor appetite, slow growth, tiredness and headaches."
There's a whole raft of other conditions too – ranging from Eosinophiliic Gastrointestinal Disorder to Coeliac disease – most of which have many overlapping conditions.
Then there's the fact that children can start reacting to different foods – the most common of which are cow's milk, eggs, wheat, soya, nuts, fish and seafood – at any time throughout the lifespan. They may not necessarily react the first time they try a food – it could even be the 20th time they've wolfed down a slice of bread that they have a reaction.
Some children will also only react to larger quantities, remaining symptom-free if they stick to small portions. And with many allergies, such as egg and milk allergies, children usually grow out of them by the time they reach five.
But despite the complexity, doctors can come to reliable conclusions – either themselves through skin prick test, blood tests or carefully monitored elimination tests – or by referring you to a paediatrian or even a paediatric allergist, reassures Watkins.
"It's very tempting to self-diagnose as a result of what you read on the internet or using over-the-counter kits, particularly if your GP is dismissive when you say that you think your child has a food intolerance. I know because it happened to me," says Lucy Walker, whose one-year-old son is has a lactose intolerance, which is the most common food intolerance and occurs when the body does not contain enough of the lactase enzyme to breakdown lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.
"But, thanks to a knowledgeable friend pushing me to get proper medical advice, I persevered and it was well worth it. I saw another GP in the practice, who was more sympathetic, and I got a referral and my son now gets the help he needs."
Even Fursman, whose 14-year-old daughter has extreme allergies, had difficulty getting a diagnosis. "When my daughter was six, she had an anaphylactic shock after eating Heinz chunky vegetable soup – it was the peas and beans that did it. She was treated and sent home and then had more shocks in reaction to other foods.
The immediate medical attention she got to these shocks was great, as was our GP. But the hospital we were referred to for longer-term help wasn't used to dealing with multiple allergies. We eventually we got the specialised help we needed, though, and her life is so much better."
Melissa Little acknowledges that more children than in the past suffer from reactions to food. The general consensus is that this is due to our cleaner environments that have played havoc with our immune systems, as well as the fact that more people live in cities and urban environments.
Mind you, the rise in cases is also due to the fact that in previous generations, we'd probably have just lived with the fact that our child was often bloated or got lots of headaches, not putting it down to food.
"Due to increased awareness, people are now challenging those symptoms," she says.
Clearly, this is positive. But, adds Little, it's essential not to get carried away – and if you remember only one rule, it is to never, ever self-diagnose.
Allergy UK is the leading medical charity providing advice, information and support to those with allergies and food intolerances. For more information visit www.allergyuk.org or call the national helpline on 01322 619898.
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