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Learning About Food Allergies in Children

What is a food allergy?

When your child has a food allergy and then eats that food, your child's body reacts as if the food is trying to cause harm. So it fights back by setting off an allergic reaction. A mild reaction is no fun, but it isn't dangerous. A serious reaction can be deadly.

Allergies tend to run in families. Your child is more likely to have a food allergy if other people in your family have allergies like hay fever or asthma. And food allergies are more common in children than in adults. Children sometimes outgrow their food allergies, especially allergies to milk, eggs, or soy.

The best way to prevent a food allergy is to avoid the foods that cause it. And make sure that you know what to do if your child does eat something that he or she is allergic to.

What are the symptoms?

Food allergies can cause many different symptoms. They can range from mild to serious. A mild reaction may include tingly lips, a stuffy nose, dizziness, and a few raised, red, itchy patches of skin (called hives).

The most severe reaction is called anaphylaxis (say "ANN-uh-fuh-LAK-suss"). It affects your child's whole body. Anaphylaxis can start within a few minutes to a few hours after your child eats the food. And the symptoms can go away and come back hours later. A severe reaction may cause hives all over, swelling in the throat, trouble breathing, nausea or vomiting, or fainting.

Children usually have the same symptoms as adults. But sometimes a small child just cries a lot, vomits, has diarrhea, or does not grow as expected.

How is a food allergy diagnosed?

The doctor will ask questions about your child's past health and family food allergies. He or she will do a physical exam. The doctor will also ask what symptoms your child has from eating certain foods.

Because food allergies can be confused with other problems, your doctor may do some tests. Your child may have either skin testing or a blood test. These tests can help see what your child is allergic to. An oral food challenge is another way to diagnose a food allergy. Your child will eat a variety of foods as your doctor watches to see if and when a reaction occurs.

How can you prevent future reactions?

If your child has a food allergy, you can take steps to help him or her avoid having reactions to that food. Most important, your child should avoid eating the foods that he or she is allergic to. Learn to read food labels and spot other names for problem foods. When you eat out or at other people's houses, ask about the foods your child is served. And you can bring safe substitutes from home.

Teach your child's teachers and caregivers what to do if your child eats a food that he or she is allergic to.

Also, have your child wear medical alert jewellery that lists his or her allergies.

How do you care for your child who has a food allergy?

For a mild reaction, your doctor may recommend a non-drowsy antihistamine, such as loratadine (Claritin). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

During a severe reaction

  • A severe reaction is an emergency. Call for emergency help.
  • Learn how and when to give your child an epinephrine shot. Older children can learn to give themselves the shot. Make sure it is with your child at all times.

When should you call for help?

Give an epinephrine shot if:

  • You think your child is having a severe allergic reaction.

After you give an epinephrine shot, call 911, even if your child feels better.

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child has symptoms of a severe allergic reaction. These may include:
    • Sudden raised, red areas (hives) all over your child's body.
    • Swelling of the throat, mouth, lips, or tongue.
    • Trouble breathing.
    • Passing out (losing consciousness). Or your child may feel very light-headed or suddenly feel weak, confused, or restless.
    • Severe belly pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. (A baby with pain or nausea may be really fussy and not stop crying.)
  • Your child has been given an epinephrine shot, even if your child feels better.

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as:
    • A rash or hives (raised, red areas on the skin).
    • Itching.
    • Swelling.
    • Mild belly pain or nausea.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

Where can you learn more?

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