What to Know About Food Allergies in Young Children

It's every parent's nightmare: in the midst of transitioning your baby from milk/formula to solid foods, you serve her something that causes an allergic reaction. She's too young to communicate what she's feeling moment-to-moment other than crying, but you need to know right away if something you've given her poses a life-threatening danger. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, food allergies affect between six and eight percent of children under age three. That might seem low considering how often you hear about food allergies in daycares and schools these days. But don't let the seemingly long odds make you complacent. BabyCenter.com points out that there are risk factors that can increase the chance your baby could experience an allergic reaction, such as family history of allergies. And, besides, even if the probabilities are low, an allergy is not something you want to risk ignoring.  

In this article, we walk you through some foods that commonly cause allergic reactions in children transitioning to solid foods, the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction you should be looking for in your baby or toddler, and what to do if you see them.

Get To Know Common Childhood Allergy-Causing Foods

In this interconnected age, it can seem as if there's no end to the number of foods that pose a potential allergy danger to your baby. But, the evidence shows that some are more common than others. The American Academy of Pediatrics ("AAP") lists the following foods as containing proteins that most commonly trigger allergic reactions in children:

  • Cow milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Nuts from trees (such as walnuts, pistachios, pecans, cashews)
  • Fish (such as tuna, salmon, cod)
  • Shellfish (such as shrimp, lobster)

Many children will outgrow their egg, milk, wheat and soy allergies, whereas nut and shellfish allergies often persist into adulthood. Because allergic reactions can pose a potentially life-threatening danger to your child, parents should introduce any new foods -- particularly those listed above -- in small servings. 

Signs and Symptoms Your Child is Having an Allergic Reaction

Allergic reactions tend to develop quickly after a child has ingested food as the body reacts to an allergy-causing protein. Reactions tend to appear as one or more skin or stomach problems. When introducing any new food to your child, particularly one of the foods listed above, the AAP advises that you keep an eye out for the following:

Skin problems such as:

  • Hives (red spots that look like mosquito bites)
  • Itchy skin rashes (eczema, also called atopic dermatitis)
  • Swelling
  • Breathing problems
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Throat tightness

Stomach symptoms such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Circulation symptoms
  • Pale skin
  • Light-headedness
  • Loss of consciousness

Be aware, however, that these problems are not necessarily caused by an allergy. They could instead be an indication of a food intolerance, skin sensitivity, or some other medical condition. Your pediatrician can help you distinguish which is which.

What To Do If You Think Your Child Is Having an Allergic Reaction

The first thing most parents want to know about allergic reactions is: when do I know I need to call 911 for a food allergy? Obviously, every situation is different and parents should follow their gut and err on the side of safety if they think their child is in distress. But, some conditions that can be particular signs that your baby needs urgent medical attention, according to the AAP and BabyCenter, are:

  • The appearance of more than one of the signs or symptoms above at once
  • Anytime your child is wheezing or experiencing any other apparent breathing problems (e.g., seemingly trying to itch their throat or having difficulty swallowing)
  • Loss of consciousness or listlessness.

If you don't think your child needs emergency attention, but that a food might still be causing an allergic reaction, call your pediatrician right away. Even seemingly mild allergic reactions can escalate dangerously, and because having one allergy can be a risk factor for multiple (and potentially more severe) ones, it's important for your child to be evaluated as soon as symptoms emerge. If an allergy is diagnosed, your pediatrician will help you develop an allergy management plan, which may include dietary modifications or medication.

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