If your child has a food allergy, it is important to plan meal and snack times in a way that keeps your child safe. Whether it is at home cooking dinner, at school eating lunch or at a friend’s house for a birthday party, there are many considerations that need to be made to create a safe food environment for your child. Knowing the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction and how to treat them can help you better manage your child’s allergy.
What is a Food Allergy?
A food allergy occurs when the body mistakenly identifies a food as harmful and causes an immune response. Symptoms and severity of reactions in response to a food allergy will vary among children, ranging from mild to severe. Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction in which the body triggers an immune response. Strict avoidance of foods that trigger an allergic reaction is the only way to prevent a reaction. Reactions can worsen each time the child is exposed to the food.
Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance2
Food allergies and food intolerances are sometimes confused with each other, but they differ in a few ways. Though some of the symptoms can be similar, they actually involve different body systems and reactions to different parts of a food. A food allergy involves an immune system response to the protein in a food. A food intolerance involves a digestive system response to the sugars present in a food. The most important difference is that food allergies can be life-threatening and they must be completely removed from the person’s diet to prevent a fatal reaction.
The Most Common Food Allergens
A child could be allergic to any food, but there are 8 foods that account for the majority of allergic reactions. They are:
- Tree nuts (almonds, cashews, pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, etc.)
- Shellfish (shrimp, lobster, oysters, scallops, etc.)
Signs of an Allergic Reaction
There are a wide variety of symptoms that may indicate a child is having an allergic reaction. As the parent of a child with food allergies, it is important to be familiar with these symptoms so that you can identify if your child is having a reaction and act accordingly. Symptoms may occur within minutes of exposure to the allergen, or up to 2 hours later.
Common symptoms include:
- Swelling of the mouth, tongue, face or throat
- Itching of the skin, ears, eyes or mouth
- Hives, rash or eczema
- Difficulty breathing; wheezing; coughing
- Congestion, hoarseness
- Stomach pain
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Dizziness; confusion
Young children may not be able to communicate some of the symptoms above. Instead, they may communicate their symptoms in the following ways3:
- “My tongue (or mouth) is tingling (or burning).”
- “My tongue (or mouth) itches.”
- “My mouth feels funny.”
- “There’s something stuck in my throat.”
- “My lips feel tight.”
- “It feels like there are bugs in my ear.”
Sometimes, an allergy can cause a severe, life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. This reaction can affect many body parts at the same time. Quickly giving medication to a child having a severe reaction can be life-saving.
What Do I Do If My Child Has An Allergic Reaction?4
If you suspect your child is having an allergic reaction, take immediate action.
- If the symptoms are mild, you may be able to give an antihistamine, like Benadryl.
- If the symptoms are severe and you have an epinephrine auto-injector, use as directed right away and call 911 for emergency medical help.
When in doubt, it is better to give an epinephrine auto-injector and seek medical attention.
Withholding epinephrine increases the risk for fatality.
Diagnosing a Food Allergy5
If you suspect that your child may have a food allergy, contact your family physician or pediatrician for next steps. Diagnosis of a food allergy often involves a clinical team approach among the physician, a certified allergist, a registered dietitian, and other health care professionals as appropriate.
Food Allergy Management in Schools
It can be stressful to send your child to school when they have a food allergy. Check out the resources below for guidance on getting started with food allergy management at school.
If your school participates in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Program, contact the school nutrition director or manager to find out more about allergy-friendly meal options for your child.
- Food allergies. CDC Health Schools website.https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/foodallergies/index.htm#:~:text=Food%20allergies%20are%20a%20growing,children%20in%20the%20United%20States.&text=That’s%201%20in%2013%20children,immune%20response%20to%20certain%20foods. Updated June 8, 2020. Accessed December 21, 2020.
- Managing life threatening allergies in schools. The John C. Stalker Institute of Food and Nutrition website. https://johnstalkerinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Mng-Allergies.pdf. Published May 2016. Accessed December 21, 2020.
- Managing food allergies in schools: the role of school teachers and paraeducators. CDC Healthy Schools website. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/foodallergies/pdf/teachers_508_tagged.pdf. Accessed December 21, 2020.
- First aid: allergic reactions. Kid’s Health from Nemours website. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/allergic-reaction-sheet.html#:~:text=Contact%20a%20doctor%20if%20your,diphenhydramine%20(such%20as%20Benadryl). Reviewed April 2018. Accessed April 8, 2021.
- Joneja JV. The Health Professional’s Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerances. 2013: 56-72.