Gastrointestinal food allergies are not rare in infants and children. Symptoms include vomiting, reflux, abdominal pains, diarrhea and constipation. Gastrointestinal food allergies are a spectrum of disorders that result from adverse immune responses to dietary antigens. The named disorders include immediate gastrointestinal hypersensitivity (anaphylaxis), oral allergy syndrome, allergic eosinophilic esophagitis, gastritis, and gastroenterocolitis; dietary protein enterocolitis, proctitis, and enteropathy; and celiac disease. Additional disorders sometimes attributed to food allergy include colic, gastroesophageal reflux, and constipation.
Gastrointestinal food allergies may be defined as clinical syndromes which are characterised by the onset of gastrointestinal symptoms following food ingestion where the underlying mechanism is an immunologically mediated reaction within the gastrointestinal tract. These gastrointestinal symptoms, principally vomiting and diarrhoea, sometimes abdominal colic, may be accompanied by other symptoms outside the alimentary tract. The clinical spectrum of these disorders ranges from acute anaphylaxis (rarely leading to death in infancy) to relatively minor symptoms which are difficult to distinguish from other disorders such as toddler’s diarrhoea or psychologic disorders. The same food, e.g. cow’s milk, may produce a wide range of clinical manifestations. In the one individual, clinical features may change with age. The incidence of gastrointestinal food allergic disease is greatest in the first year of life and decreases with age. There are, broadly speaking, two categories of clinical syndromes which are related to speed of onset of symptoms: immediate and delayed. Those syndromes which manifest immediately after food ingestion are usually easy to diagnose and specific IgE tests and skin prick tests are frequently positive. Those which have a delayed onset of up to several days are difficult to diagnose, and currently available investigations may be unsatisfactory for routine use. In current clinical practice, gastrointestinal syndromes which can be manifestations of food allergy, may be grouped as follows: 1) immediate syndromes, including anaphylaxis and b) acute vomiting +/- diarrhoea in association with cutaneous and respiratory manifestations; and 2) delayed syndromes, including a) food-sensitive small intestinal enteropathies, b) food-sensitive colitis, c) multiple food allergy +/- enteropathy, and d) infantile colic.
Clinical diagnosis requires the exclusion of nonimmunologic diseases that have similar gastrointestinal symptoms. In food allergy, the immune reactions involved can be immunoglobulin (Ig)E-mediated, cell-mediated or both. Symptoms in other target organs are common in cases of IgE-mediated disorders, but not in the cell-mediated disorders in which symptoms are usually localized to the gut. Diagnosis utilizes detailed medical history, clinical evaluation, skin testing, food-specific IgE antibodies, responses to elimination diet and oral food challenges. Endoscopic biopsies are essential in cell-mediated disorders and allergic eosinophilic gastropathies. Treatment includes avoidance of the offending food by a restriction diet in children and the use of hydrolyzed or amino acid-based formulas in young infants. Topical and/or systemic corticosteroids can also be used in eosinophilic esophagitis.
The pediatrician faces several challenges in dealing with these disorders because diagnosis requires differentiating allergic disorders from many other causes of similar symptoms, and therapy requires identification of causal foods, application of therapeutic diets and/or medications, and monitoring for resolution of these disorders.
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