Pediatric Gastroenterology

Allergic Diseases of the Gastrointestinal System

Small girl in bed holding a tissue against her nose

There are more than 67 million children in America. This means that with a total United States population of 324+ million people, children represent more than 20 percent of the populace. In addition, nearly 8 percent of those children, or a ratio of 1 in 12, will develop an allergic disease of the gastrointestinal system. A food allergy, especially in young children who do not know how to tell their parents that something is wrong, can be very dangerous. Understanding the difference between an allergy and intolerance will help you learn what foods to avoid and what foods to limit in your child's diet. If you think that your child is having a negative reaction to one or more foods, your pediatrician can refer you to a pediatric gastroenterologist for allergy testing to determine if it is food allergy or food intolerance.

Difference Between an Allergy and an Intolerance

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the difference between an allergic reaction and an intolerance because they may have the some of the same symptoms.


An intolerance or sensitivity happens when your child's body is not able to digest certain food properly or that a certain food irritates your child's digestive tract. Signs of intolerance can be an upset stomach, burping, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, gas, nervousness, or irritability. While intolerances are uncomfortable, they do not affect the immune system, it is rarely dangerous, and the signs will go away when the food has passed through the body.

Even though Celiac Disease is classified as intolerance, it closely resembles an allergic disease of the gastrointestinal system. This condition is intolerance to all foods containing gluten. Children with this condition are at risk of having an anaphylaxis reaction, a situation where there is a rapid constriction of the airway, changing heart rhythms, internal intestinal problems, or external skin irritations.


The exact causes of food allergies are not known. What is known is that certain nutrients can trigger a defense immune reaction in the body, similar to how the body reacts when fighting an infection. In addition to making your child feel sick, an allergic response can have a serious anaphylaxis reaction. There are no specifics as to what type of foods will cause an allergy. The vast majority of allergic nutrients affecting children are whole milk, eggs, acidic vegetables, wheat, soy, fish, peanuts, and tree nuts such as cashews, pecans, and walnuts.

It is not always easy for a parent to determine if their child is suffering from a food allergy because the reaction time can vary from showing up within a few minutes to the development of symptoms over a few hours or days after an offending is eaten. Some of the immediate symptoms may include tightness in the chest, hives, face swelling, wheezing, or an anaphylaxis attack. Some delayed symptoms may include stomach pain, skin rashes, bloody stools, vomiting, trouble swallowing, or diarrhea. Other symptoms include sneezing, runny nose, swollen lips or tongue, tingling in the throat, lips, or tongue, and persistent coughing.

One reason that different food groups are introduced separately to infants is to help parents notice any allergic reactions. Allergic reactions can develop and influence the following body systems: the heart, the skin, the breathing, and the gastrointestinal tract. An analysis and an allergy test by a pediatric gastroenterologist can locate the root cause of your child's ailment.

Pediatric allergic diseases of the gastrointestinal system can range from mild to serious reactions and often involve difficulty when swallowing, stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. A pediatric gastroenterologist is a specialist who treats a variety of gastrointestinal disorders involving the digestive system. The digestive system is the stomach, large and small bowel, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and esophagus. Sometimes the symptoms of a food allergy may not be a food allergy, but signs of other allergic diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. Treatable gastrointestinal conditions include inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, motility disorder, Celiac disease, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and persistent diarrhea. Left untreated, allergic diseases can affect a child's growth.

Food allergies can be identified by testing while food intolerances will not show up on any test. Most children outgrow their allergies within a few years. However, children with more serious allergies, such as those related to peanuts or tree nuts, may never outgrow their reactions. The good news is that with a proper diagnosis and a treatment program from a pediatric gastroenterologist, you will know how to care for your child's food or other gastrointestinal allergies.