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little girl drinking milk

Children allergic to cow’s milk smaller and lighter

little girl drinking milk

Children allergic to cow’s milk are smaller and weigh less, according to the first published study to characterize growth trajectories from early childhood to adolescence in children with persistent food allergies.

Children who are allergic to cow’s milk are smaller and weigh less than peers who have allergies to peanuts or tree nuts, and these findings persist into early adolescence. The results from the longitudinal study – believed to be the first to characterize growth patterns from early childhood to adolescence in children with persistent food allergies – was published online in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“Published data about growth trajectories for kids with ongoing food allergies is scarce,” says Karen A. Robbins, M.D.,* lead study author and an allergist in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Hospital when the study was conducted. “It remains unclear how these growth trends ultimately influence how tall these children will become and how much they’ll weigh as adults. However, our findings align with recent research that suggests young adults with persistent cow’s milk allergy may not reach their full growth potential,” Dr. Robbins says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 13 U.S. children has a food allergy with milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts accounting for the most serious allergic reactions. Because there is no cure and such allergies can be life-threatening, most people eliminate one or more major allergen from their diets.

The multi-institutional research team reviewed the charts of pediatric patients diagnosed with persistent immunoglobulin E-mediated allergy to cow’s milk, peanuts or tree nuts based on their clinical symptoms, food-specific immunoglobulin levels, skin prick tests and food challenges. To be included in the study, the children had to have at least one clinical visit during three defined time frames from the time they were age 2 to age 12. During those visits, their height and weight had to be measured with complete data from their visit available to the research team. The children allergic to cow’s milk had to eliminate it completely from their diets, even extensively heated milk.

From November 1994 to March 2015, 191 children were enrolled in the study, 111 with cow’s milk allergies and 80 with nut allergies. All told, they had 1,186 clinical visits between the ages of 2 to 12. Sixty-one percent of children with cow’s milk allergies were boys, while 51.3% of children with peanut/tree nut allergies were boys.

In addition to children allergic to cow’s milk being shorter, the height discrepancy was more pronounced by ages 5 to 8 and ages 9 to 12. And, for the 53 teens who had clinical data gathered after age 13, differences in their weight and height were even more notable.

“As these children often have multiple food allergies and other conditions, such as asthma, there are likely factors besides simply avoiding cow’s milk that may contribute to these findings. These children also tend to restrict foods beyond cow’s milk,” she adds.

The way such food allergies are handled continues to evolve with more previously allergic children now introducing cow’s milk via baked goods, a wider selection of allergen-free foods being available, and an improving understanding of the nutritional concerns related to food allergy.

Dr. Robbins cautions that while most children outgrow cow’s milk allergies in early childhood, children who do not may be at risk for growth discrepancies. Future research should focus on improving understanding of this phenomenon.

In addition to Dr. Robbins, the research team includes co-author Robert A. Wood, M.D., and senior author Corinne A. Keet, M.D., Ph.D., both of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

*Dec. 18, 2019 update: After leaving full-time employment at Children’s National Hospital, Dr. Robbins became an AstraZeneca employee, working on immuno-oncology safety.

Assorted foods

Tamp down food allergy anxieties with this quiz


Assorted foods

Food allergies: a research update

Assorted foods

Promising new therapies for food allergies are on the horizon, including an experimental immunotherapy awaiting federal approval that enables people who are very allergic to eat peanut protein without suffering serious side effects.

Good news, right?

As it turns out, the idea of a child who is highly allergic to a specific food eating that same food item makes kids with lifelong food allergies and their parents a bit queasy.

“It’s a very big paradigm shift. From diagnosis, children are told to avoid their food triggers at all cost. But now they may be counseled to approach the very thing that scares them, put it in their body and see what happens,” says Linda Herbert, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Children’s Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health.

“On the flip side, these new protections could reduce long-term anxieties, replacing daily anxiety about accidental exposure with a newfound sense of empowerment. Either way, a lot of families will need support as they try these new treatments that enable them to ingest a food allergen daily or wear a patch that administers a controlled dose of that food allergen,” Herbert says.

She will discuss food allergy treatments in the pipeline and families’ psychosocial concerns related to daily life as she presents a research update during the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) 2019 Annual Meeting. A select group, including Herbert, has been recognized with an AAAAI Foundation Heritage Lectureship, which honors distinguished AAAAI members with a special lecture and plaque.

Herbert’s symposium targets allied health professionals at the annual meeting, including psychologists, dietitians and nurse practitioners who attend to a host of psychosocial concerns felt by families affected by allergies to foods like eggs, nuts and cow’s milk.

“When patients arrive for outpatient therapy, they feel anxious about being safe when they’re out in public. They have anxieties about their children feeling safe at school as well as managing restaurant meals. They explain difficulties being included in social events like birthday parties, field trips and shared vacations,” Herbert says. “Some families restrict social activities due to stress and anxiety.”

Children’s National Health System takes a multidisciplinary approach for complex conditions like food allergies, she says, combining the expertise of psychologists, medical providers, research nurses, clinical nurses, registered dietitians and other allied health professionals.

“When we all communicate, we can see the complete picture. It strengthens the care that the child receives, and it’s especially powerful that it can happen all at once – rather than going to multiple appointments,” she adds.

During such group huddles, the team agrees on a plan together that is communicated to the family. One ongoing challenge is that one-third of school children with food allergies are bullied or teased.

“A lot of parents don’t necessarily know to ask or how to ask. I frequently suggest that clinicians discuss peer concerns more in clinic.”

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 2019 Annual Meeting presentation

  • “Allied Health Plenary – Food Allergy Updates.”

Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, 4:15-5:30 p.m. (PST)

Linda Herbert, Ph.D., director of Children’s Division of Allergy and Immunology’s psychosocial clinical program.