What Are Signs That My Child Has a Food Allergy?

The short answer from a pediatric allergist/immunologist
A child eating a strawberry from a bowl

Q: I suspect my child might have a food allergy. What are the telltale signs and how should I take action? 

A: Typically, with a classic food allergy, symptoms begin within 30 to 60 minutes of eating a particular food. Sometimes it can be hours later, but that’s very rare.

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There are many types of adverse reactions to foods, but when we talk about food “allergy,” we’re usually referring to immediate allergic reactions caused by an allergy antibody, with potential for anaphylaxis. Reactions vary from person to person, but allergic reaction symptoms can include:

  • Itchy mouth.
  • Painful or itchy throat.
  • Upset stomach.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Hives.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Change in voice.

We get very concerned with breathing trouble or a change in a child’s voice — those can indicate more serious reactions. It’s very rare, but potentially a food allergy reaction could be fatal.

In the pediatric age group, the most common allergies are to milk and eggs. Peanuts and tree nuts are also common allergy triggers, as well as soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

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Sesame is an emerging concern in the United States, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently added this as a required allergen on packaged foods, similar to what you see in the grocery store on labels for milk and eggs.

Parents often tell me how scared they were the first time their child had a reaction, and that’s very understandable. If you have reason to suspect your child is having a serious food allergy reaction, take a deep breath. You know your child better than anyone else in the world. If you are really, truly worried, then get them to an emergency room. Call EMS (emergency medical services) and tell them that you have a child who is potentially having a food allergy reaction so that they send the right kind of emergency medical services to your home. Or, if you live within reasonable driving distance to a hospital, just get them there quickly yourself.

Very mild reactions such as a few hives can be sometimes treated with antihistamines like Zyrtec®, which can help a child feel better as the reaction goes away. But for anything more serious, we recommend epinephrine and treatment with emergency medical services.

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If your child does indeed have a food allergy, make sure you’re taking the proper precautions for them at school and on play dates as well.

Pediatric allergist/immunologist Jaclyn Bjelac, MD.

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