Food Allergies in Children

Boy eating cookieNearly six million children in the U.S. suffer from food allergies, much more than in years before. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report that the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. And, between 1997 and 2008, the number of children with peanut or tree nut allergies has more than tripled.

Food Allergies Defined

But what exactly are food allergies? And how do they differ from food intolerances? A food allergy is when someone’s immune system reacts negatively to exposure of a certain food.

Food intolerances – or sensitivities – are different than food allergies. Whereas food allergies trigger an immune response in the body, food intolerances result in adverse reactions but do not involve the immune system and simply mean that your body has difficulty digesting that food.

Most Common Allergens

You may have heard of the “Top 8” allergens. These are the food categories to which children are most frequently allergic. They are:

  1. Eggs
  2. Fish (like cod, salmon, and tuna)
  3. Milk
  4. Peanuts
  5. Shellfish (like shrimp and lobster)
  6. Soy
  7. Tree Nuts (like cashews, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts)
  8. Wheat

Should your child be diagnosed with any of these food allergies, you can easily check packaged foods thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). Any of the top eight allergens have to be labeled on the packaging. Note, however, that products not regulated by the FDA will not carry this important labeling, like cosmetics, medications, toys, crafts and more.

Some items you may not think of include Play Doh®, which contains wheat, bird seed (can contain peanuts, nuts, wheat, and milk products), pet food and treats (may contain shrimp, eggs, fish, milk and peanut butter) and cosmetics, including shampoos which often contain wheat protein and milk protein.

Common Reactions to Food Allergies

Some food allergy reactions can be relatively minor – like hives on the skin – but others can be extremely dangerous and even life threatening. Some common reactions include:

  • Skin problems such as hives, itchy skin rashes, swelling
  • Breathing problems like sneezing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and throat tightness
  • Gastrointestinal issues including nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea
  • Circulation symptoms such as pale skin, light-headedness, fainting and even loss of consciousness

More than 40% of children with food allergies have experienced a severe reaction, like anaphylaxis. An anaphylactic reaction comes on quickly and can result in death. It is frightening and must be treated right away with a drug called epinephrine, usually delivered through a device called an epinephrine auto-injector, or EpiPen. The EpiPen should be injected within minutes of symptoms beginning; you should then call 911 immediately and request transport to the hospital by ambulance, even if your child seems to be feeling better.


If you suspect your child may have a food allergy, start by visiting your child’s pediatrician. He or she will want to know your child’s symptoms, how frequently the reaction happens, the time it takes from eating a certain food to the start of symptoms, and family history. The pediatrician may also consider other conditions that can mimic food allergies, like lactose intolerance or celiac disease, an auto-immune disease caused by gluten. You may also be referred to an allergist.

Now What?

Once your child has been diagnosed with a food allergy, you will need to take steps to keep him as safe as possible.

  • If your child has an anaphylactic food allergy, you should carry an EpiPen with you at all times.
  • Read labels at all times. The top eight allergens will be listed on any packaged foods.
  • If you’re at a restaurant, ask how the food is prepared. Ask what, if any, precautions are taken for food allergies.
  • Be prepared at school. Be an active advocate for your child. Don’t be afraid to speak up for him or her, especially in situations where he or she may not feel comfortable speaking up for himself (like in the classroom). Make sure she has access to safe treats when there are birthdays in her classroom.
  • Be prepared in social situations. Bring safe foods with you to birthday parties and outings. Don’t be afraid to ask a parent what they are planning to serve at a party, so you can bring something similar (but safe) for your child to help him feel more like he fits in.
  • Finally, seek support. Finding other parents in a similar situation will not only provide a support system for you, but it will also give you a forum to ask questions that are bound to come up. Look for Facebook groups dedicated to kids with food allergies, or kids with your child’s specific allergy.

Outgrowing Food Allergies

While some allergies to milk, egg, wheat, and soy may go away in childhood, children today seem to be outgrowing food allergies much more slowly than in previous decades. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are rarely outgrown and are generally a lifelong issue.

If you think your child may have outgrown her food allergy, involve your allergist so she can have the food test in a controlled environment where they are prepared to handle a reaction.

Finally, take a deep breath. It can be overwhelming learning that your child has a food allergy, but with time and preparation, you will feel more and more in control of managing your child’s allergy and keeping him or her safe no matter where you are.



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