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About Food Allergies

What is a food allergy?

  • The immune system (which usually fights germs) is mistakenly “attacking” food proteins.
  • Food allergy can be severe/life-threatening (“anaphylaxis”)
  • Food “intolerance” is different from food allergy. Lactose intolerance, a problem with digesting the sugar in milk, is not life-threatening.
  • It is more likely to happen if close relatives or your child has other allergies (like asthma, eczema, and hay fever)

What are the symptoms of food allergy?

  • Sometimes there are sudden symptoms (within minutes to 1-2 hours) that can include:
    • Skin: Itchy rashes, hives (welts), swelling of lips
    • Airway: Itchy mouth, tight throat, coughing, trouble breathing, asthma (wheezing)
    • Gut/Stomach: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
    • Other: Poor blood circulation causing paleness, fainting, weak pulses
  • Sometimes food allergy is the cause of daily problems, such as rashes (atopic dermatitis, eczema) or gut symptoms (pain, vomiting, poor growth)

How are food allergies diagnosed?

  • Many symptoms can look like a food allergy but may be caused by other types of allergies (for example, pollens, animal dander) or an illness that is not a food allergy (like a viral infection). It is important to discuss your child’s symptoms with your doctor
  • Your doctor evaluates the medical history and may perform allergy tests (skin scratch test or blood tests for allergy)
  • Sometimes the history and simple tests are not enough to identify a food allergy and trials of food removal or doctor-supervised feedings are needed

How are food allergies treated?

  • Once diagnosed, the main treatment is to avoid the food
  • For some people, small amounts of food can trigger a reaction
  • Tips for Avoidance
    • Read labels every time—even if you find brands you trust or if you do not expect a food to contain your/your child’s allergen
    • Talk with managers/chefs when out to eat and consider using chef card when dining out 
    • Use extra caution when dining at high-risk establishments, such as salad bars, buffets and ice cream parlors—avoid high-risk establishments if at all possible
    • Buy pre-packaged foods that contain a label and avoid bulk bins in order to prevent accidental ingestion due to cross-contact
    • If at all possible, remove the allergen from the home; if unrealistic to remove allergen from home, wash hands after eating family member’s food allergen, keep surfaces and dishes clean and keep allergen-containing food out of reach; be aware of allergens in pet food if child with food allergen is at a young enough age they may be inclined to sample the pet food/treats.

Food allergy education

  • Learn about label reading (see tips for avoidance above), acquiring a safe restaurant meal, and managing school and camp.
  • Teach and remind relatives and friends about your child’s food allergies and how to treat them with epinephrine should exposure and symptoms occur.
  • Visit Consortium of Food Allergy Research (COFAR)

Emergency plans for food allergy exposure 

  • For some, eating the food can trigger severe symptoms (“anaphylaxis”)
  • Follow/review emergency treatment plans prescribed by your doctor
  • Epinephrine administration video

Resources