You may already know your child has a food allergy or you just may be starting to suspect. Food allergies can result in a range of symptoms (from mild to severe) and it is important to understand their causes, symptoms and management strategies to ensure your child's health and safety.

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is a reaction to a compound in a food (an allergen) that causes your body to switch on its immune defence systems. This causes histamines to be released which result in a range of symptoms including redness, swelling and breathing difficulties. These symptoms may vary from the mild end of the spectrum to severe cases where death can occur.

What are the risk factors for food allergies?

Some of the risk factors for a child developing food allergies include:

  • a mother avoiding allergenic foods during pregnancy
  • a delayed introduction to allergenic foods
  • a diet high in processed foods
  • a diet of formula rather than breastmilk
  • exposure to toxins during pregnancy or early infancy
  • a family history of allergies.

What are the symptoms of a food allergy?

Some of the mild to moderate symptoms of allergic reactions include:

  • welts, hives and eczema
  • redness – either patchy or all over
  • a swelling face, eyes and mouth
  • vomiting and bowel problems
  • excessive sneezing – like hay fever – and asthma.

Serious allergic reaction is also called anaphylaxis, and the symptoms for this occur almost instantly, including:

  • a swollen throat and tongue
  • paleness and floppiness
  • diarrhoea
  • wheezy or laboured breathing

If any of these symptoms occur, you must call an ambulance immediately. The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) and the Australian government advise that if an adrenaline auto-injector, like an EpiPen®, is available you should use this prior to calling an ambulance. Speak to your child health nurse about how to use one of these.

What are common allergenic foods?

More than 90% of food allergies are caused by a small group of foods. These foods include:

  • milk and dairy products
  • eggs
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • sesame
  • soy
  • fish
  • shellfish

Children may grow out of some of these allergies – or their symptoms might become more mild – while other allergies are lifelong.

Managing food allergies

You should ensure specific testing and a full diagnosis by a doctor of any suspected allergy in your child. The best management strategy is understanding your child’s food allergies and learning to read food labels; a doctor will be able to provide you with information and support.

If your child experiences severe allergic reactions to certain foods, they may need to have an EpiPen® close by at all times. Older children and teenagers can learn to self-administer these, but it’s wise to have informed others around in case an anaphylactic reaction renders your child unconscious or unable to self-administer.