Oh, Mama… *hugs* — if you’re here, it means your child has a soy food allergy or you expect they’re at an increased risk of developing one. And let’s be real, food allergies are not one of those beautiful messes of parenthood that are good despite their inherent chaos. Food allergies are no fun. In fact, they’re downright scary. So, we see your worry. It’s valid. Hence, the hugs.
If there is a silver lining here, though, it’s that many children go on to grow out of soy allergies. We’ll discuss that more in-depth further down, but first, we need to get to the nuts and bolts of what it means to be the parent of a child with soy allergies. What are the symptoms? How do you manage them? Will your little nugget be okay?
To help you navigate all of these questions (and more), we reached out to medical health professionals and allergy experts to glean as much insight about soy allergies in children as possible. Keep reading to discover all of the ins and outs of this common food allergy so that you can keep your precious soy-sensitive cutie safe.
What is a soy allergy?
We all know that the immune system is normally sort of a hero when it comes to human physiology. It fights off infection to help keep us healthy and strong. But when someone has a food allergy, the immune system goes off the tracks — for reasons unknown, it reacts abnormally and basically attacks the proteins in whatever food triggered it as though those proteins were an infection.
When someone has a soy allergy, the protein their immune system overreacts to is in soy. And soy obviously comes from soybeans, which belongs to the legume family. As you may well know, the legume family also includes another very common food allergen: peanuts (along with beans, lentils, and peas). Having said that, some people are allergic to only one legume and not others. In other words, just because your child has a soy allergy doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be allergic to peanuts, too — and vice versa.
What does a soy allergy look like in a baby, toddler, child, and teen?
One of the reasons a food allergy can be tricky diagnose from the onset is because symptoms can vary so much from child to child. “Soy allergy or sensitivity can manifest differently depending on age,” Jamie Kim, certified dermatology physician assistant and founder of My Itchy Child, explained to Scary Mommy. “For babies, they might present as fussiness, diarrhea. For children and teens, it could be hives, vomiting, or diarrhea.”
What makes diagnosing soy allergies all the more complicated is that not only can they vary from person to person, but a single person might also exhibit different symptoms during every reaction. Per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), allergic reactions to soy can affect the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and/or cardiovascular system.
Soy allergy symptoms at any age may include vomiting, stomach cramps, indigestion, diarrhea, wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, repetitive cough, tightness in the throat and/or hoarse voice, weak pulse, pale or blue skin coloring, hives, swelling (that may affect the tongue and/or lips), dizziness, and confusion.
How long does a soy allergy take to develop?
Like most allergic reactions to food, a soybean allergic reaction could very well be immediate. However, it could also be delayed and present hours after any exposure to soy or return for a second wave hours after the original reaction. Although it is rare, a soy allergy can cause anaphylaxis.
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis is defined by ACAAI as “a potentially life-threatening reaction that impairs breathing, causes a sudden drop in blood pressure, and can send the body into shock.” The first and only line of defense against anaphylaxis is epinephrine, which is administered via an epinephrine auto-injector — also known as an EpiPen — as soon as any symptoms present.
What is an epi-pen?
If your child has a food allergy, the most valuable resource at your disposal (besides their allergist) will be what is referred to as an epinephrine auto-injector. Although EpiPen is technically a brand name, “epi-pen” has become the vernacular term for this potentially life-saving device. Because anaphylaxis can hit within seconds of exposure to the allergen, it’s vital to act quickly — an epi-pen is small, easy to carry, easy to use, and quickly delivers a dose of epinephrine to your child in the event of an anaphylactic reaction.
Even if you aren’t 100 percent certain your child’s reaction to soy warrants epinephrine, you should always err on the side of caution and use it anyway. Although there are side effects and risks, the benefits far outweigh these. If you ever do have to use an epi-pen on your little one, it’s imperative that you also call 9-1-1 and inform the dispatcher that epinephrine was administered. The first responders need to be prepared to bring more, if necessary. Additionally, out of an abundance of caution, the recommended course of action also includes being monitored in the hospital in case a second wave of serious symptoms occur.
Of course, as much as we all wish we could be with your child and protect them every minute of every day, that’s simply not realistic. At some point, your soy-sensitive kiddo will be away from you, and they may even have a reaction when they aren’t in your presence.
So, you should make sure that — as soon as they’re old enough — you walk your child through how to self-administer in the case of an emergency. And you should have a written emergency action plan approved by your child’s allergist to give to their school, daycare, or anyone who might have eyes on your kid when they aren’t in your care. Another idea? Have a medical alert bracelet made for your little darling that identifies their soy allergy.
How do you test for a soy allergy?
If you suspect your child has a soy allergy, you should immediately inform their pediatrician and ask for a referral to an allergist. In order to properly diagnose your child, the allergist will ask a comprehensive series of questions about your child’s history of symptoms — this is why it’s an excellent idea to keep a journal to jot down notes anytime your little one experiences a reaction. Typically, the allergist will pair the detailed questions with a skin-prick test and, possibly, a blood test (like the ImmunoCAP test) to indicate whether food-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies are present in the bloodstream.
Already fretting over that skin-prick test? Admittedly, it’s not a ton of fun for your kiddo. Having said that, it’s not too awful either and it can be an essential diagnostic tool. Conducted in a doctor’s office, these tests consist of taking a drop of liquid containing the suspected allergen placed on the patient’s forearm or back. The skin gets pricked with a tiny, sterile probe, which allows the allergen-laced liquid to sink in. Areas that react reveal what your child is allergic to.
As a final step, your child’s allergist may decide to do an oral food challenge, by which your little one is fed suspected allergy-causing food in gradual increments to see how they react. As you can imagine, this should only be performed by experienced medical professionals.
What foods should a child with a soy allergy avoid?
Because soy is one of the eight allergens that fall under the labeling requirements of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, packaged food items sold in the U.S. that contain soy or a soy-based ingredient must be clearly labeled to reflect as much.
Per the ACAAI, soy or soy derivatives can be found in the following: some infant formulas, canned broths, soups, canned tuna, processed meats and hot dogs, energy bars, baked goods, Asian cuisine, low-fat peanut butter, alternative nut butters, vodka, and many processed foods. Children with a soy allergy also need to steer clear of soy milk, soy yogurt or ice cream, edamame, miso, tempeh, soy sauce, and tofu. Any types of foods fried in oil are risky as well. Always, always avoid products containing soy!
Granted, that can be easier said than done. “Soy is found in many products, most of which the general public may not be aware. It is used to make Worcestershire sauce, some peanut butter, flavorings, broth, frozen meals, some Asian food, and meat substitutes like tofu,” explained Lisa Richards, nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet. “For a child with a known soy allergy, it is important to avoid these foods. It is in so many products that it can be difficult to avoid, making it all the more important to know how to spot it in foods or recipes.
Kids with soy allergies are generally okay to consume highly refined soybean oil as well as foods that contain soy lecithin, but you should always consult your child’s allergist to find out if a food is safe before your child tries it.
What are the risk factors?
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a few factors that could play a part in putting your child at greater risk of developing a soy allergy. If there is a family history of allergies to soy or other foods, your child’s soy allergy risk may be elevated. “It’s not well understood if soy allergy itself is genetic, but soy allergies are commonly seen in people with atopic dermatitis (eczema), which can be genetic,” Kim told Scary Mommy.
Also, simply being a child could be a factor, as soy allergy is most common in infants and toddlers.
Do soy allergies ever go away?
Allergic reactions to soy typically first appear in infants and kids under three. And while there are no guarantees it will go away, many children do outgrow the allergy over time. Per Kim, “About 50 percent of children outgrow soy allergies around seven years of age and many outgrow by 10 years old.”
Until that day, though, you need to maintain an open line of communication with your child’s allergist, become an expert at reading food labels, and make sure your kiddo’s epinephrine auto-injector prescription is current and nearby at all times.