Did you know that one of the biggest risk factors of developing a food allergy for babies is dry, broken, and sensitive skin? Often diagnosed as eczema or atopic dermatitis, there has been an increased association of food allergies in children with eczema.
The development of food allergies is believed to be driven by topical exposure to invisible, ever-present food particles in the environment (like peanut dust) through skin that is broken due to eczema. That means for children with eczema, there is an increased risk of also developing food allergies.
An ongoing skin condition that causes red, itchy and dry skin, eczema is thought to affect 17-24% of children. Similarly, food allergies are a growing concern that develop in up to 8% of young children.
These conditions are so often linked, that about one third of children with eczema may also have food allergies. While a connection between the two conditions has been recognized, research shows that food allergies will not cause eczema, but alternatively, babies with eczema can be over 600% more likely to develop a food allergy.1
Known as the “atopic march," this describes a pattern where eczema generally appears first, followed by food allergies, then seasonal allergies and asthma.
When your child has eczema, allergens and irritants entering through the skin triggers an immune response in the form of inflammation. This hypersensitivity of the immune system can cause an exaggerated response later on when food allergens are eaten or inhaled. Some of these common food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, shellfish, fish, grains, soy and sesame.
Common triggers of eczema flares include dry climate, overheating, environmental irritants, scratching, allergens, and bacterial skin infections. While some of these eczema triggers are hard or impossible to avoid, there are still steps you can take to help minimize food allergy development*:
1.) Create healthy, protective skin
Dry, broken skin is not just uncomfortable and itchy; it leaves your baby vulnerable. That’s because food particles in the air, on furniture or other home surfaces, in a cream with nut oils - even on a parent’s hands - can enter the body through skin cracks.
When this happens, the baby’s immune system can become sensitized to that food as opposed to tolerant to it. That means that sometimes when a food is exposed through the skin the body is trained to react to that food as a foreign object.
Help create healthy skin for your baby by maintaining moisture, avoiding irritants that damage and dry out the skin, and treating eczema-inflamed skin with creams or ointments.
2.) Use the tummy to properly expose your baby to foods
While it's important to avoid exposure to food particles through the skin, it's equally important to increase food exposure through the tummy, where it's meant to happen. That's because as a baby digests food, the proper immune response occurs. In other words, their body learns to accept food as food, rather than react to it as a food allergy or something dangerous.
We know that early (as early as 4 - 6 months) and regular dietary exposure to food - specifically the ones often associated with allergies - may reduce the risk of a child developing an allergy to that food.2
The Bottom Line: By understanding the environmental factors for developing a food allergy, you can help get your baby's belly accustomed to common and diverse foods. All it takes is some simple-yet-important steps, like taking good care of your baby’s skin and exposing them to potentially allergenic foods through the tummy.
1 Martin PE, et al. Which infants with eczema are at risk for food allergy? Results from a population-based cohort. Clin Exp Allergy. 2015;45(1):255-264.
2 Du Toit G, et al; LEAP Study Team. Randomized trial of peanut consumption in infants at risk for peanut allergy. N Engl J Med. 2015;372(9):803-813.