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Understanding Symptoms of Food Allergy in Children

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More and more people are developing food allergies, but there are no clear answer as to why.  Allergic reactions to food can still happen at any age, however, food allergies affect more babies and children then adults.

According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011.  Nearly 8% of children (around 6 million) have food allergies, and younger children are affected the most.  The same is true where boys seem to have more food allergies than girls. 

Parents know that raising children to be healthy is a feat in and of itself, and since the number of children developing food allergies seems to be on the rise, it might be good to consider learning about food allergies and symptoms within children.

Every 3 minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency department – that is more than 200,000 emergency department visits per year. 

Overhead view of peanut butter on bread with red crayon warning against peanuts which are a dangerous allergen for many children and adults.

Allergic Reactions to Food and Symptoms

When a child experiences an allergic reaction to food, symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening. An allergic reaction to food sets off the body’s immune system, causing it to find a means for protection. The body thinks the food is a foreign invader and so its form of protection is to create antibodies to fight the food.  The next time the same food is eaten, the body is equipped with chemicals it made from the first contact with the food, called histamines.  These chemicals can trigger symptoms throughout the body involving the:

Skin, nose, mouth or gastrointestinal tract

  • Anaphylaxis – when several areas of the body can be affected, threatening breathing and blood circulation send the body into shock; reactions may simultaneously affect different parts of the body (for example, a stomachache accompanied by a rash).  Insect stings, medications, or latex can also set off anaphylaxis

Skin

  • Hives
  • Eczema
  • Redness and swelling of the face or limbs and appendages
  • Itching and swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth

Gastrointestinal tract

  • Vomiting and/or stomach cramps
  • Tight, hoarse throat; trouble swallowing
  • Swelling of the tongue, affecting the ability to talk or breathe
  • Diarrhea

Cardiovascular system

  • Shock or circulatory collapse
  • Weak pulse
  • Pale or blue coloring of skin
  • Dizziness or feeling faint

Respiratory tract

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Repetitive cough

When Do Symptoms Occur?

Symptoms can start within a few minutes or hours and sometimes several hours later.  Eczema is a symptom which is more often a type of delayed reaction.  

A more severe form of delayed reaction is food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES), which occurs in the gastrointestinal tract anywhere from two to six hours after consuming foods like milk, soy, certain grains as well as other solid foods. Young infants are more prone to FPIES when exposed to these types of foods for the first time or even when they are being weaned.  The symptoms of FPIES may include repetitive vomiting (which can lead to dehydration), or bloody diarrhea. It can be difficult to diagnose FPIES as the symptoms can be mistaken for a viral illness or bacterial infection.  If you believe your infant is experiencing FPIES, they will need medical emergency assistance to receive IV rehydration.

Mothers who are breastfeeding should know that babies can have allergic reactions to foods they eat. Babies who seem to be very sensitive to their mother’s milk can be tested for allergies. Sometimes just eliminating possible trigger foods from the mother’s diet may end any subsequent allergic reactions.

How May a Child Describe Symptoms?

Children sometimes might be too embarrassed to speak up if something seems wrong, and often times they have no idea that they are indeed experiencing an allergic reaction.  Here are some possible clues of how children may illustrate an allergic reaction:

  • Putting hands in their mouths
  • Pulling or scratching at their tongues
  • Changing of the voice or hoarseness

Will a Child be Allergic Forever?

Of the children allergic to milk, about 80% will eventually outgrow the allergy.  Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, indicated in a recent study that children are taking longer to outgrow milk and egg allergies. The majority are allergy-free by age 16. With regard to eggs, wheat and soy, most children outgrow those allergies when they reach five years of age.  However, only about a smaller fraction of children and adults will outgrow allergies to peanuts and tree nuts.  In adults, fish and shellfish allergies tend to develop later on in life and are also less likely to be outgrown.  

Sources: 

Food Allergy Facts and Statistics for the U.S.

Food Allergy Research and Education – Symptoms

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