Everything You Need to Know About Food Allergies in Children

Food allergies in children are common, affecting one in 13 children in the United States. Children can develop an allergy to any food, but eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, and wheat are the most common foods that trigger allergic reactions in kids.

Learn more about food allergies in children, their causes, symptoms, and how to prevent and treat them.

Common Food Allergies in Children - Illustration by Theresa Chiechi

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

What Is a Food Allergy?

When the immune system overreacts to a protein in a certain food, it can result in an immune response that sends out immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. The IgE antibodies attach to cells within the immune system that release chemicals, called histamines, causing an allergic reaction. When the allergy-causing food is eaten again, the histamines then cause symptoms of an allergic reaction to develop.

Causes of Food Allergies in Children

Researchers are still investigating what causes food allergies. However, it is known that children must first be exposed to foods that can cause an allergic reaction.

During the initial exposure to a certain food, the body creates antibodies. Being exposed to the food a second time triggers the immune response, as the antibodies recognize the food in the body.

There may also be a genetic component to food allergies. Having parents or other family members with food allergies can increase the likelihood that a child will have a food allergy.

Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

Food intolerances are often confused with allergies. Unlike allergies, food intolerances don’t impact the immune system. An intolerance means a person is not able to digest a component of certain foods, such as lactose intolerance.

Another major difference between the two is how much of a food a person can be exposed to before symptoms appear. For example, a child who is lactose intolerant may drink a glass of milk with no symptoms. However, the more they drink, the more likely they are to experience intolerance symptoms.

Children who have food allergies experience symptoms with only a small amount of exposure to a food allergen, and they are advised to avoid it completely.

Food Intolerance Symptoms

Food allergy symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, while food intolerance symptoms are typically uncomfortable, but not fatal. Gastrointestinal symptoms are the most common sign of food intolerances, such as burping, gas, indigestion, and upset stomach.

Most Common Food Allergies in Kids

The most common food allergens in children include:

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

Some children may outgrow certain food allergies (such as milk, soy, and eggs), whereas other food allergies may be present throughout their lives (including peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, or fish).

Food Allergy Symptoms

Symptoms of an allergic reaction can vary in type and severity, and some may even be fatal. Allergic reactions may also differ from person-to-person and change over time.

Symptoms of allergic reactions to food include:

  • Itching, hives, and skin rashes
  • Stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Coughing or hoarseness
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Swelling of tongue, throat, lips, or mouth
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening

Babies may experience slightly different symptoms, including:

  • Being fussy or having colic-like behavior
  • Bloody bowel movements
  • Insufficient growth
  • Eczema, an inflamed skin rash

If your child experiences any of these symptoms after consuming a certain food, talk to your pediatrician or healthcare provider about testing for allergies.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Food Allergies in Children

There are two main tests to investigate whether a child has food allergies:

  • A skin prick test involves food extracts that are placed on the skin of the lower arm or back to test for a reaction (called a wheal and flare).
  • A blood test will check for food-specific antibodies in the blood.

Along with any test results, allergies are diagnosed after careful consideration of a child’s reported symptoms, their detailed health history, and a physical exam.

Ways to Manage Food Allergies and Prevent Allergic Reactions

Avoiding exposure to known food triggers is key to managing food allergies.

Some ways to prevent exposure include:

  • Getting familiar with food labels: Food manufacturers in the United States must indicate whether a food product contains any of the eight most common food allergens. Read food labels regularly, and teach your child how to read them to spot any ingredients that can cause allergic reactions.
  • Being wary of prepared foods: When consuming food prepared outside of the home or at a restaurant, ask what ingredients are in the food and how the food was cooked or served.
  • Working with a professional: Registered dietitians can advise on safe food substitutions and ensuring a child’s diet has enough nutrients to support healthy growth when managing food allergies.

Creating an emergency plan is also a critical life-saving strategy for severe food allergies.

Preparing for food allergy-related emergencies can include:

  • Carrying an epinephrine auto-injector: Children at risk for anaphylaxis should carry an epinephrine auto-injector with them at all times. This easy-to-use emergency medicine can be administered at the first signs of a severe allergic reaction.
  • Letting others know: Tell family, friends, caretakers, and school personnel about your child’s allergy. They can help prevent exposure to a food allergen and discuss an action plan in the event of an emergency.
  • Using a medical ID bracelet: Helping your child understand the risks of food allergen exposure is key. Giving them tools, such as a medical ID bracelet, can help them communicate with other people that they have a food allergy.

A Word From Verywell

People of all ages live with food allergies and manage them well. Recognizing symptoms and getting allergies properly diagnosed can inform strategies to avoid food triggers and reduce the likelihood of life-threatening reactions.

Children may describe symptoms differently than adults or not know the right words, so it’s wise to listen carefully. Taking note of any allergy-related symptoms that your child experiences and working closely with your healthcare provider can help you determine prevention strategies that work best for your family.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you test for food allergies in kids?

    Testing for food allergies in kids often includes a skin prick test to observe any reactions to particular foods and/or a blood test to identify any food-specific antibodies. The results of these tests, in addition to a child’s medical history, reported symptoms, and a physical exam, can help determine a proper food allergy diagnosis.

  • How fast can a food allergy reaction happen in children?

    Typically, it doesn’t take too long for symptoms of an allergic reaction to appear. The timing can range from a few minutes to two hours after having eaten a particular food.

  • Which foods should kids avoid to prevent allergies?

    Parents and caretakers can introduce foods that commonly cause allergic reactions in children slowly but early to reduce the likelihood of developing allergies. When infants start to eat solid foods (between four and six months old), slowly introducing these foods is recommended, as long as other foods have been tolerated with no issue. In fact, not introducing the foods that commonly trigger allergic reactions early on in a child’s life may increase the risk of developing allergies.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Identifying causes of food allergy & assessing strategies for prevention.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Food problems: is it an allergy or intolerance.

  5. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Food allergy. Updated September 28, 2020.

  6. National Health Service. Food allergy symptoms.

  7. Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center. Food allergies in children.

  8. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of food allergy in the United States: summary for patients, families, and caregivers.

  9. Food and Drug Administration. Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 questions and answers.

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  12. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Prevention of allergies and asthma in children.

By Katie Wilkinson, MPH, MCHES
Katie Wilkinson is a public health professional with more than 10 years of experience supporting the health and well-being of people in the university setting. Her health literacy efforts have spanned many mediums in her professional career: from brochures and handouts to blogs, social media, and web content.