About food allergies
If you have a food allergy, your immune system reacts to a particular food when the food enters your body. This food is called an allergen.
Your immune system reacts by releasing histamine and other substances into your body’s tissues. This leads to the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Even tiny amounts of the food you’re allergic to can cause an allergic reaction. Some reactions can happen immediately, and others can happen several hours later.
Allergic reactions are common. But most reactions aren’t severe and deaths are extremely rare.
Food allergies aren’t the same as food intolerances. A food intolerance is a reaction to the food you’re eating, but the reaction isn’t caused by your immune system. Food allergies are generally more severe and have more symptoms than food intolerances.
Immediate-onset food allergies: symptoms
The symptoms of immediate-onset food allergies usually appear within a few minutes. But sometimes symptoms can appear 1-2 hours after a child has eaten the food.
Mild to moderate symptoms of immediate-onset food allergies include:
- swollen lips, face or eyes
- skin reactions like redness, hives or eczema
- tingling or itchy mouth
- vomiting, stomach pain or diarrhoea
- nose congestion.
A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis, and it can also happen immediately. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- breathing difficulties or noisy breathing
- tongue swelling or throat tightness
- a wheeze or persistent cough
- difficulty talking or a hoarse voice
- persistent dizziness or fainting
- paleness and floppiness (in young children)
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction and needs urgent medical attention. If your child is having an anaphylactic reaction, first lay your child flat or keep them sitting. Don’t let your child stand or walk around. Next use an adrenaline auto-injector like EpiPen® if one is available. Then call an ambulance – phone 000.
Delayed-onset food allergies: symptoms
The symptoms of delayed-onset food allergies appear more than 2-4 hours after a child comes into contact with the food. Sometimes symptoms appear many hours later.
Symptoms of delayed-onset food allergies include vomiting, diarrhoea, bloating and stomach cramps. Occasionally there might be mucus or blood in the poo.
Delayed-onset allergies aren’t usually life threatening.
Common food allergies
The most common food allergies are:
- cow’s milk
- tree nuts like cashews, pistachios, walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts
Diagnosing food allergies in children
Immediate-onset food allergies
Tests for immediate-onset allergies include the following:
- Skin-prick test: your child’s skin is pricked with a special device that looks a bit like a toothpick and that contains a drop of a specific allergen. If a hive comes up where your child’s skin has been pricked, your child probably has an allergy.
- Blood tests: the serum specific IgE antibody test uses your child’s blood to see whether your child is sensitive to specific allergens. If your child’s blood has a high amount of antibodies, your child probably has an allergy. Your child might have this test if they can’t have skin-prick testing.
- Oral food challenge: sometimes your child will be given the possible allergen in a safe, supervised setting. Medical and nursing staff will watch to see whether an allergic reaction happens. This test carries a risk of anaphylaxis so should be conducted only by medical specialists in a setting where anaphylaxis can be safely and quickly treated.
Delayed-onset food allergies
If your child has a delayed-onset food allergy, diagnosis usually happens through an ‘elimination and re-challenge’ test.
This involves removing possible allergy-causing foods from your child’s diet, then reintroducing them when your child’s allergy specialist thinks it’s safe to do so. You reintroduce only one food at a time so it’s easier to identify the food that’s causing the issue.
You might hear about tests like IgG food antibody testing, Vega testing and hair analysis. These tests haven’t been scientifically proven as allergy tests. Tests and treatments that are backed up by science are most likely to work, be worth your time, money and energy, and be safe for your child.
Managing food allergies in children
There’s no cure for food allergies yet, but many children grow out of them. You can also take some steps to make it easier for you and your child to live with food allergies.
Avoid the food
It’s important for your child to avoid the food. This can be challenging, particularly as eating even tiny amounts can cause an allergic reaction. Your child also needs to avoid any foods or cutlery that could have been in contact with the food they’re allergic to.
You can do two important things to help your child avoid the food:
- Read all food labels. Be aware that some allergenic foods have different names – for example, cow’s milk protein might be called ‘whey’ or ‘casein’. But by law 10 allergens must be plainly stated on food labels – cow’s milk, soy, egg, wheat, peanut, tree nuts, sesame, fish, shellfish and lupin.
- Be careful when you eat out. Ask what ingredients each dish includes, how it was prepared, whether it has touched any other foods, and whether there’s any risk of cross-contamination. Most restaurants are happy to tell you, but they might not know about the ingredients in some foods like sauces. It’s best to avoid buffets and bain-maries (food warmers) because there’s a good chance that ingredients have been transferred from one dish to another.
Have an action plan
You should talk to your doctor about an ASCIA (Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy) action plan. This will help you recognise and treat symptoms if your child eats something that causes an allergic reaction.
Know how to use an adrenaline auto-injector
If your child is at risk of anaphylaxis, your doctor might prescribe an adrenaline auto-injector like EpiPen®. These auto-injectors make it easy to self-inject adrenaline. Your doctor will teach you and your child (if old enough) how and when to use it.
It’s important that key people – like family, carers, babysitters and your child’s school – know how and when to use your child’s adrenaline auto-injector.
Consider a medical bracelet
Your child might wear a medical bracelet that lets people know your child has an allergy.
How long do food allergies last?
Most children grow out of their food allergies by 5-10 years of age, especially children who are allergic to milk, egg, soybean or wheat.
Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are more likely to be lifelong.
If you think your child might have grown out of an allergy, see your GP or allergy and immunology specialist for an assessment. Don’t experiment at home to see whether your child has outgrown the allergy. Your doctor will let you know whether it’s safe for you to introduce the food at home or whether this should be done under medical supervision.
How to reduce your child’s risk of food allergies
You can take some simple steps that might help reduce your child’s risk of developing food allergies.
Eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet while pregnant or breastfeeding
When you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s important to eat a wide variety of healthy foods every day including fruit, vegies, grains, protein and dairy or calcium-enriched products.
Avoiding foods that commonly cause allergies – for example, eggs and peanuts – while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding won’t reduce the risk of your baby developing allergies. In fact, avoiding too many foods can be dangerous, because your baby won’t get important nutrients.
Breastmilk is best, so it’s recommended that you exclusively breastfeed your baby until it’s time to introduce solid foods at around six months old. It’s best to keep breastfeeding until your baby is at least 12 months old.
Talk to a doctor or nurse about infant formula
For parents bottle-feeding with infant formula, there’s no evidence that giving babies hydrolysed infant formula or partially hydrolysed infant formula (which is also called hypoallergenic or HA formula) instead of standard cow’s milk formula prevents allergies.
If you’re not sure what formula is best for your baby, talk to your paediatrician, GP or child and family health nurse.
Introduce allergenic solids from around six months of age
Introducing allergenic solid foods early can reduce the risk of your child developing a food allergy. All babies, including babies with a high allergy risk, should have solid foods that cause allergies from around six months of age.
These foods include well-cooked egg, peanut butter, wheat (from wheat-based breads, cereals and pasta) and cow’s milk (but not as a main drink).
Your baby doesn’t need to avoid any particular allergenic foods.
Allergy risk facts and factors for children
Most children with food allergy don’t have parents with food allergy. But if a child’s parents have a food allergy or other allergy problems like asthma, eczema or hay fever, the child has an increased risk of food allergies.
Babies with severe eczema in the first few months of life are at an increased risk of developing food allergy.