Food allergies in children – a parent’s guide

Head of Clinical Leadership and Engagement at Bupa UK, Paediatric Nurse and mum of two
21 November 2017

If you’re encouraging your little ones to eat a good meal, you’ll want to know that the food they’re eating is helping to keep them healthy. But although food allergies in children are becoming increasingly common, it’s not completely clear why this is yet. One theory is that children aren’t as exposed to bugs as their parents once were, and so their immune system doesn’t get the chance to develop as well. Here, I’ll explain what a food allergy is and what to do if you suspect your child has one.

Young girl eating a slice of watermelon

What is a food allergy?

If your child has a food allergy, it means their body’s immune system reacts differently to certain foods. Although the food may be safe to eat, the body wrongly sees some proteins in the food as something harmful and produces an antibody in response. Food allergies in children are quite common. It’s estimated that around five in every 100 children may have one. Your child may be more likely to develop a food allergy if:

  • there’s a family history of food allergies
  • they have other allergies like hay fever
  • they have other medical conditions such as eczema or asthma

What are the symptoms of a food allergy?

How one child’s body reacts to a food allergy may be different to another’s. Some symptoms will be more severe than others, but there are some classic symptoms to keep a close eye out for:

  • A runny, blocked or itchy nose.
  • Sore, red, swollen or itchy eyes.
  • Sneezing.
  • Itchy or swollen lips, mouth, tongue and throat.
  • Finding it harder to breather or talk.
  • Diarrhoea, feeling sick or vomiting.
  • Wheezing, a cough, noisy breathing, or shortness of breath.
  • A skin reaction, for example hives (itchy bumps on your skin), a rash or flushed skin.
  • Feeling bloated (swollen abdomen).

An infographic showing the symptoms of food allergy

What are the most common food allergies in children?

The most common food allergies in children include:

  • cow’s milk
  • eggs
  • tree nuts
  • peanuts
  • wheat
  • soya
  • fish

What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?

There’s a lot of confusion – among both medical professionals and parents – about the difference between allergies and intolerances. What makes this even more complicated is that some intolerances can be as disruptive to a child’s life as an allergy.

If your child has a food allergy, they have a visible reaction to a specific food. Their immune system will also produce an antibody in response to it. An antibody (sometimes called an immunoglobulin) is a protein your immune system produces when it detects and tries to fight something harmful, like bacteria or a virus. The antibody your immune system produces that causes an allergic reaction to food is called an ‘IgE antibody’.

With a food intolerance, children have symptoms after eating certain foods, even when their body isn’t producing antibodies against them. Food intolerances aren’t caused by the immune system and the onset of symptoms is often much slower. In some cases, symptoms can come on hours after eating the offending food. This can make it much harder to decide whether symptoms are caused by a particular food or by something else, such as stress or anxiety.

What should I do if I suspect my child has a food allergy?

If your child has a reaction and you suspect it’s a food allergy, you should avoid giving them the food you think caused it. They also shouldn’t have any similar foods (eg any nuts if you think a peanut may have caused the reaction). Then record their symptoms for the next 24 hours and follow up by keeping a food and symptoms diary for at least two weeks. This can help to identify if any of their symptoms are triggered by certain foods. Your GP will be able to review your child’s food and symptoms diary in more detail and may decide to arrange further tests.

If at any point your child has a severe reaction, such as finding it hard to breathe, wheezing or their mouth or lips begin to swell, then seek medical attention immediately.

How can my child be tested for a food allergy?

Your GP may refer your child to a specialist who can do a simple blood test or a skin-prick test. This is to test for the IgE antibody that’s responsible for triggering an allergic reaction. If there’s a clear history of reaction to an obvious food trigger, a blood test can be useful to confirm a diagnosis. Unfortunately, this test can be unreliable. Sometimes it will suggest a child has an allergy when they don’t, so it’s only useful if your child has very clear symptoms.

If the diagnosis is unclear, the doctor may arrange for a skin-prick test. During a skin-prick or patch test, small amounts of the suspected allergen will be placed on to your child’s skin. Their skin is then pricked with a needle and any reaction is monitored for the next 15 to 20 minutes.

Will my child grow out of their food allergy?

Some mild food allergies can resolve themselves by school age. As a child grows and their digestive system develops, it’s possible they could grow out of an allergy to cow’s milk, wheat, soya or eggs, for example. However, if you’re thinking of reintroducing trigger foods into your child’s diet, it’s important to ask and follow the advice of a healthcare professional or qualified dietitian first.

If your child has a more severe food allergy, such as nuts or shellfish, they’re unlikely to outgrow this.

Living with an allergy can be challenging. For advice and tips on how to manage this, take a look at our blog on living with a food allergy.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available for your loved ones when you need it.

Lucy Brown
Head of Clinical Leadership and Engagement at Bupa UK, Paediatric Nurse and mum of two

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