Food allergies affect up to 1 in 13 American children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of food allergies in kids has risen by about 50% between 1997 and 2011. Many parents are worried about their children having a food allergy, so it’s important to know what a food allergy is, and what are the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Read on for information about the signs of food allergy, what to do in case of emergency, and next steps if your child does in fact have an allergy.
What is a food allergy?
According to the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a food allergy is “an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food.”
Essentially, a food allergy reaction happens when your immune system gets confused while trying to defend your body, and mistakes good guys (certain foods) as bad guys (like a virus or bacteria). Your body reacts to the food and causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction, which may include hives, swelling or difficulty breathing. Exposure to even a tiny amount of the food can cause an allergic reaction.
Which foods can cause an allergic reaction?
Technically, any food can cause an allergic reaction. There have been reported food allergy reactions in more than 170 different foods. But, there are some foods that are more likely to cause an allergic reaction than others.
The top 9 foods to cause allergic reactions in the US are:
milk & dairy
Food allergy symptoms
Symptoms of a food allergy can happen quickly (within minutes), or more slowly (a few hours later). Symptoms vary, but may include any of the following:
swelling in the lips, tongue, face
itchiness around the mouth
coughing, sneezing, or wheezing
congestion or runny nose
shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Many times, young children can’t fully or accurately describe how they are feeling. Instead, they may use some phrases like:
“My mouth feels funny”
“My mouth/throat/tongue feels itchy”
“There is something stuck in my throat”
“Something doesn’t feel right”
When you need emergency help
Although rare, some children may experience an extreme form of food allergy reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency and you should call 911 immediately to receive emergency help. Signs of anaphylaxis may include:
shortness of breath, wheezing
swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
pale or red color to the face and body
What to do if your child has a food allergy
If you think your child is experiencing anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately to receive emergency help. If you think your child has a food allergy (see symptoms above), call your pediatrician, who can help determine if it is a true food allergy. Your pediatrician may refer you to a board certified allergist, a doctor that specializes in allergies. The pediatrician and/or allergist will determine if your child has a food allergy by looking at:
family history of allergies
your child’s history or allergies or other conditions like eczema
your child’s history with the suspected food and reactions that you have noticed
the doctor may recommend additional testing, like a Skin Prick Test or blood test, which help them make a diagnosis.
When to see a dietitian?
If your child has one or more food allergies, especially an allergy to a food that is a major part of their diet (like milk, eggs, or wheat), seeing a dietitian can make all the difference. Children with multiple food allergies are at higher risk of impaired growth and nutrient deficits. When you have to eliminate many different foods or major foods from the diet, it can be challenging to find meals that meet all your child’s needs. Plus, it can be hard to find new and interesting meals, so kids (and parents) may get bored of eating the same meals over and over again. Kids with food allergies may be more nervous about trying new foods, which is totally understandable. Helping your child find a wide variety of nutritious and safe foods will give them the nutrients they need to grow, and will give them the confidence to learn how to choose what to eat as they get older.
Find out more about how a Registered Dietitian can help your child with food allergies. Registered Dietitians are nutrition experts, and can help your family manage your child’s food allergies so they can enjoy healthy, delicious meals that help them grow and thrive.