Your child ate a handful of cashews at the neighbor’s party and now has blotchy cheeks and swollen lips. Another child drinks milk and has a blow-out bowel movement. In situations like this, it’s natural to wonder if your child has a food allergy.

Some symptoms of food allergies are similar to food poisoning, while others may be confused with asthma or environmental allergies, and still others may signal a food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance. It can be a challenging puzzle to figure out whether your child is allergic to a specific food.

To complicate the picture, your child may describe his or her symptoms differently than an adult would. The child might say, “This is too spicy,” or, “My tongue feels thick,” when eating a food that triggers an allergic reaction. Alternatively, children may become very fussy or irritable and be unable to explain what they are experiencing.

So, how do you really know if your child is experiencing the symptoms of a food allergy? The following eight foods are responsible for about 90 percent of all food allergies:

  • Milk
  • Soy
  • Egg
  • Wheat
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish

The symptoms of a classic (Ig-E mediated) food allergy typically begin within two hours of eating the trigger food. Conversely, the symptoms of food sensitivity, such as lactose intolerance or an auto-immune disorder like celiac disease, may be delayed by as much as 12 hours.

With the onset of a food allergic reaction, acute symptoms occur and may affect the skin, stomach, airways, eyes, or the entire body. The signs that your child may be experiencing an allergic reaction to food may include:

1. Skin Reactions. Food allergies can cause skin rashes, such as hives. They are very itchy. Another skin reaction is eczema, a scaly, itchy rash that may blister or peel. It’s common to see swelling of the skin, especially around the eyes and lips. Many hives all over your child’s body, significant swelling, or worsening of hives over time are serious conditions and need medical care.

2. Stomach and digestive tract symptoms. Stomach and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea, are often the fastest way the body can get rid of the offending food allergen. Common stomach or gastrointestinal symptoms indicating a food allergic reaction may include:

  • Upset stomach or feeling like throwing up
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

3. Respiratory symptoms. Food allergies can affect the lungs, throat, or your child’s ability to breathe. Respiratory symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Swelling of lips, tongue, eyes, or face

Swelling of the airways to the point where the child has trouble breathing, has a short, barking cough, or has trouble swallowing is a sign of anaphylaxis and requires emergency treatment.

4. Severe, full-body reactions (Anaphylaxis). Anaphylaxis is a reaction that involves multiple organ systems and causes a drop in blood pressure. It usually begins within two hours of eating an allergen and often begins within minutes. It may involve any of the above symptoms or a combination of the above plus any of the following:

  • Sense of impending doom
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Loss of consciousness

An anaphylactic reaction is a life-threatening emergency. If your child experiences any of the symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately.

Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, April 2019

Takeaways

  • The symptoms of a food allergy may be confused with other food reactions.
  • Whenever your child demonstrates symptoms similar to those of a food allergy, contact your pediatrician.
  • Eight foods are responsible for about 90 percent of all food allergies.

References

  1. Joneja JV. The Health Professionals Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerances.
  2. Sicherer S. Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends on It.
  3. Food Allergy Research & Education.

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