Food Allergies in Children
What is food allergy in children?
A food allergy is when your child’s body has a bad immune reaction to a certain food.
This is different from a food intolerance, which does not affect the immune system.
This is true even though some of the same signs may be present.
What causes food allergy in a child?
Your child's immune system fights off infections and other dangers to keep them healthy.
Food allergy occurs when your child's immune system decides that a food is a "danger"
to your child's health. The reason this happens isn't clear. Your child's immune system
sends out immunoglobulin E (or IgE) antibodies. These antibodies react to the food
and cause the release of histamine and other chemicals. These chemicals can cause
hives, asthma, itching in the mouth, trouble breathing, stomach pains, vomiting, or
diarrhea. It doesn't take much of the food to cause a severe reaction in highly allergic
Most food allergies are caused by these foods:
Eggs, milk, and peanuts are the most common causes of food allergies in children.
Many children “outgrow” their allergies. But some food allergies may be lifelong.
Discuss your child's food allergies with their allergy healthcare provider.
What are the symptoms of food allergy in a child?
Allergic symptoms may start within a few minutes to an hour after eating the food.
Each child may have different symptoms. These can include:
Severe nausea or vomiting
Stomach cramps or stomach pain
Red, itchy rash (hives)
Itching or swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth
Throat itching or tightness
Dizziness, with lowered blood pressure
Asthma symptoms, such as coughing, runny or stuffy nose, wheezing, or trouble breathing
A feeling of impending doom
It doesn't take much of the food to cause a very bad reaction in highly allergic children.
In fact, a tiny piece of a peanut or a small sip of milk can cause a severe reaction
in a child that is highly allergic.
Some babies may have non-life-threatening, delayed allergies to milk, soy, or other
allergens. These symptoms often are not like the symptoms of other allergies. Instead
they may include:
These non-life-threatening allergies may look like other health problems. They are
often hard to diagnose with allergy testing. Make sure your child sees their healthcare
provider for a diagnosis.
Severe symptoms of a food allergy
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction. It is life-threatening. Symptoms can include:
Trouble breathing, shortness of breath, or wheezing
Feeling as if the throat is closing
Hoarseness or trouble talking
Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, and throat
Cool, moist, or pale blue skin
Feeling faint, lightheaded, or confused
Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Fast and weak heartbeat
Feeling dizzy, with a sudden drop in blood pressure
Loss of consciousness
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. If you think your child is having anaphylaxis,
call 911 to get help right away. If your child has an epinephrine autoinjector, use it while
you are waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Epinephrine will help stop the symptoms
of the allergic reaction. It is life-saving when used for severe allergic reactions.
Your child should always have 2 epinephrine autoinjectors with them wherever they
How is food allergy diagnosed in a child?
Your child's healthcare provider will make the diagnosis based on a physical exam
and a thorough health history. This history should include a list of foods that were
eaten before the allergic symptoms.
The healthcare provider will do some tests to make an exact diagnosis. These tests
may include the following.
Skin prick test
Skin prick tests are the most common allergy tests. Skin tests measure if there are
IgE antibodies to specific allergens such as foods, pollens, or animal dander. A small
amount of diluted allergen is put on the skin. The area is pricked or scratched. If
a child is allergic to the allergen, a small raised bump that looks like a mosquito
bite appears after about 15 minutes. Testing for many allergens may be done at the
same time. Skin test results are available right away after the testing is done. Skin
prick testing may not be done if your child very recently had a severe reaction, or
if they have long-term (chronic) hives or severe eczema.
Blood tests for allergies measure IgE antibodies to specific allergens in the blood.
The blood test that is most often used is called RAST (radioallergosorbent test).
Blood tests may be used when skin tests can't be done or if there are still questions
about a food allergy after the skin test. A positive blood test doesn't always mean
that your child has a specific allergy. Any positive blood test needs to be explained
by a healthcare provider who is familiar with the tests and knows your child's health
history. These tests take longer to get results. They may cost more than other allergy
Note: Neither a skin nor a blood test can determine how severe an allergic reaction will
Food challenge test
This test is given by an allergist. They give your child a very small amount of an
allergen by mouth. The allergen can also be inhaled. Then your child is watched closely
for any reaction. If there is no reaction, typically the amount of food will be increased
little by little until your child eats a serving of the food. Your child will be continuously
watched for reactions. Food challenges are most often done if the allergist thinks
your child will be able to eat a food again without a reaction.
How is food allergy treated in a child?
There is currently no medicine to prevent food allergy in children. The goal of treatment
is to stay away from the foods that cause the symptoms. It's very important that your
child not eat these foods or other similar foods in that food group. If you are breastfeeding
your child, talk to your child's allergist about whether or not you need to stay away
from these foods too.
It may be important to give vitamins to your child if they can't eat certain foods.
Discuss this with your child’s healthcare provider.
Children with food allergies who are at risk of a severe reaction (anaphylaxis) should
carry 2 epinephrine autoinjectors at all times. This medicine helps stop the symptoms
of severe reactions. Your child's healthcare provider can teach you how to use it.
Some children may outgrow their allergies. Your child's healthcare provider will discuss
follow-up testing or food challenges with you. Many allergies may be short-term in
children. Your child may be able to eat the food after age 3 or 4. Reintroduce a food
only after discussing it with your child's healthcare provider. This is because of
the risk of a severe reaction.
If your baby is allergic to milk, treatment may include changing your baby’s formula
to a soy formula. If your child has problems with soy formula, your child’s healthcare
provider might suggest an easily digested hypoallergenic formula.
What can I do to prevent food allergy in my child?
For many years, it was advised to delay giving a child certain highly allergenic foods
until after they were 1 year old. But new research shows that for babies at high risk
of developing peanut allergy, giving them peanuts between 4 to 6 months can greatly
lower the risk for peanut allergy.
Babies are considered "high risk" if they have moderate to severe eczema or egg allergy.
Other children who may be at risk include children with food allergies other than
egg allergy and those with siblings with peanut allergy. But these lower-risk babies
were not included in the recent studies.
If your child is at high risk for peanut allergy, talk with your child's healthcare
provider before giving them peanuts. A blood test or skin test for peanut may be advised
If your child does not have eczema or other food allergies, you can introduce peanuts
at a time that you think is appropriate.
There is no evidence that breastfeeding or formula feeding gives more protection against
food allergies. If you are breastfeeding, you don't need to stay away from any certain
foods unless your healthcare provider tells you to. Give your baby only infant formula
or breastmilk until age 1. Don't give your baby whole milk until after age 1.
Giving your baby eggs early may help prevent egg allergy. Giving other foods early
isn't helpful to prevent allergies. But adding foods to a baby's diet within the first
year of life is important.
How can I help my child live with a food allergy?
Living with food allergies means not giving your child foods that they are allergic
to. For some children, simply touching the allergen can give them an allergic reaction.
Families can remove the allergen from their home, but dining out can be challenging.
Here are some tips for dealing with your child’s food allergies when you are eating
away from home:
Know what ingredients are in the foods at the restaurant where you plan to eat. When
possible, get a menu from the restaurant ahead of time and review the menu items.
Never assume you know the ingredients in an item. Always ask, even if you have been
to the restaurant many times before.
Let your server know from the start about your child’s food allergy. Ask how the dish
is prepared and what's in it before you order. If your server doesn't know this information
or seems unsure of it, ask to speak to the manager or the chef.
Don't use buffet-style or family-style service. There may be cross-contamination of
foods from using the same serving utensils for different dishes.
Don't let your child eat fried foods. The same oil may be used to fry several different
Another tip for dining out is to carry a food allergy card. You can give it your server
or the manager before you order food for your child. A food allergy card contains
information about the specific items your child is allergic to. It also has additional
information such as a reminder to make sure all utensils and equipment used to prepare
the meal are thoroughly cleaned before use. You can easily print these cards yourself
using a computer and printer.
If your child is eating out with friends and you are not going to be present, give
your child a food allergy card (or make sure the adult in charge has one) to give
to the server.
Discuss your child’s food allergy with their school. Using some of the above strategies
at school can be helpful. You may be surprised by how many children at your school
have the same or similar allergies.
Your child's epinephrine autoinjectors should always be with them. Do your best to
avoid the foods that cause the allergy, but always be prepared in case of an accidental
exposure or reaction.
Ask your healthcare provider for an anaphylaxis action plan that outlines the symptoms
to look for and the steps to take in case of a severe allergic reaction.
Key points about food allergy in children
A food allergy is when your child’s body has a bad immune reaction to a certain food.
Most allergies are caused by milk, eggs, wheat, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and
Symptoms of food allergies may include vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, hives, swelling,
eczema, itching, trouble breathing, wheezing, and lowered blood pressure.
Symptoms of milk or soy intolerance may include colic, blood in your child’s stool,
and poor growth.
The goal of treatment is for your child to stay away from the foods that cause the
symptoms. Your child also needs a food allergy treatment plan and epinephrine autoinjectors
in case of a severe allergic reaction.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child.
Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose
for that visit.
Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important
if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.