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Every morning while I got ready for school, my mom would pack my lunch.

Sometimes my main course was a salami, yellow mustard and sweet pepper sandwich on Wonder Bread. Other days, it was peanut butter, jelly and potato chips — I added the chips in at lunchtime so they didn’t get soggy and because my sandwich style grossed out my mom. There was no way she would smash chips on a sandwich to send to school with her daughter.

Interestingly enough, the peanut butter never caused a life-threatening situation for me or my classmates. Most of my friends brought sandwiches made on Wonder Bread too. We all managed to grow up unscathed. And this was in the 1960s!

So why is it that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with food allergies increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011?

The main theory will probably surprise you, and here’s a clue: Think back to “War of the Worlds.” (I’ll share the answer at the end if you are stuck.)

The most accepted theory is known as the “hygiene hypothesis.” Basically, we need to let kids play in the dirt. Infants need a certain level of microbe (bacteria, virus, mold, germ, etc.) exposure to regulate and strengthen their developing immune systems. Our obsession to kill every last germ with antibacterial products has come with higher rates of allergy, autoimmune disease and asthma. We’ve lost the balance. Children who were raised on farms, have numerous siblings, had pets or spent early years in day care have lower rates of asthma and allergy.

Another theory is that parents have been told to wait until after a baby’s first birthday to introduce foods that could cause a reaction. But when the child tries a new food later in life, the immune system is ready to get rid of anything that seems out of line. Eat a peanut, and boom! What experts have now determined is that these foods should be introduced before the first birthday, since that’s the time when the immune system learns the difference between safe and dangerous.

Then there's the issue of a full-blown food allergy versus food intolerance. What is the difference? A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system recognizes a certain food as harmful and reacts by causing symptoms. Eating that food results in reproducible symptoms (an allergic reaction) that occur immediately (within a few hours) and with every exposure. Foods that cause allergic reactions are allergens. Typical symptoms include hives, swelling, itching, difficulty breathing and/or swallowing, vomiting, low blood pressure (which can cause the person to pass out), anaphylaxis and death. Cow’s milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish account for more than 90 percent of allergic reactions.

Food intolerances occur when the gastrointestinal tract doesn’t respond well to a specific food or an ingredient used to prepare the food. These responses are not always immediate nor are they always reproducible. Symptoms may include gas, bloating, heartburn, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, congestion and headache. Intolerances may occur if the sufferer is missing a specific enzyme to help digest a food, such as with lactose intolerance. Other common food intolerances include wheat/gluten, additives (found in processed foods), corn, soy and monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Food allergies affect 5 to 8 percent of all kids. If there is no family history of allergies, the odds are good the kids will escape them. Intolerances are more prevalent than allergies and may be difficult to determine because they are unique to the individual. Based on this information, could it be that a child believes an allergy exists when it may be an intolerance? This can be tricky.

Based on these theories, here are some ideas that may help prevent food allergies:

  • Stop trying to be so anti-bacteria.
  • Breastfeed through the first year.
  • Don’t introduce solid foods before your baby is 17 weeks old.
  • Introduce a variety of foods before your child turns 1.
  • Limit packaged and processed foods.
  • Avoid using lotion or topical products containing peanut oil on a baby’s inflamed skin if there is a family history of peanut allergy.

Oh, and in “War of the Worlds,” the aliens died from a common human germ they had never been exposed to, so they had no immunity. It could have been the common cold. To an alien, however, there is nothing common about an Earthly cold.

Carol Slager is a licensed pharmacist, author, blogger and life coach who lives in Schererville. Follow her monthly in Get Healthy and at inkwellcoaching.com.

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