Apr 25, 2017, 2:17:06 PM CDT Mar 11, 2024, 10:50:27 AM CDT

8 common questions about food allergies in children

Read our experts' answers to some of the most common questions parents have about food allergies.

Little girl sitting at a table looking at bowl of strawberries Little girl sitting at a table looking at bowl of strawberries

Food allergies affect around 8% of children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the number of children diagnosed with food allergies keeps growing.

Drew Bird, M.D., Director of the Food Allergy Center at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, offers practical answers to common questions about food allergies in children.

What is a food allergy vs. a food intolerance?

Children with a food allergy have an immune system reaction to certain foods. Even just a small amount of a food can cause a sudden immune response.

A food intolerance has nothing to do with the immune system. Lactose intolerance is a common example – it affects your digestive system, not your immune system.

What are the most common food allergens?

Nine common food allergies make up the majority of food-induced allergic reactions:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Sesame

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction?

Symptoms of food allergy include hives, vomiting, diarrhea, cough/difficulty breathing and swelling. These symptoms can happen within minutes – or up to two hours – after eating the allergenic food.

How are food allergies diagnosed?

Your child's doctor may diagnose a food allergy based on your child's medical history and/or blood tests. The doctor may also refer your child to an allergist for skin testing. A skin prick test can identify any food-specific antibodies in your child's body. Depending on your child's history and their test results, an allergist may want to also do an observed food challenge – a test where your child is given a small amount of the food in question and then watched for any reaction.

Are food allergies lifelong?

It's possible for some children to outgrow some types of food allergies. But peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish allergies tend to be lifelong.

Can food allergies be cured or prevented?

Recent research has focused on desensitizing people to food allergens. Desensitizing is a process of gradually increasing the amount or allergen someone is exposed to. It can be done orally (oral immunotherapy), under the tongue (sublingual immunotherapy), or through the skin (epicutaneous immunotherapy). Research also shows that early introduction of allergens like peanuts may prevent peanut allergy.

Where can you get good information on food allergies?

The Food Allergy Center at Children's Health and UT Southwestern located in Dallas and Plano, Texas, treat children and conduct research about pediatric food allergies.

How can food allergies be managed at home, a restaurant or school?

The most important thing to do is to avoid the food! Here are some tips:

  • At home: Be sure to read ingredient labels and carefully prepare your child's food to avoid possible cross-contact with allergenic foods.
  • Eating out: When eating out, communicate your child's food allergies to the restaurant staff. You can ask them to describe how a food is prepared and explain that cross-contamination must be avoided.
  • At school: Pack school lunches for your child, so they don't have to worry about eating allergenic foods. Talk with the school staff members to make sure they're aware of your child's food allergy and how severe it is. You can also educate them about how to help your child avoid certain foods, what to do if there is an allergic reaction, and how to give your child an auto-injectable epinephrine – in case of an anaphylactic reaction.

Download your guide to allergen-free lunches

Looking for tips to pack allergy-friendly school lunches? Our Parents' Guide to Allergen-Free Lunches has kid-friendly recipes that are free of the top nine food allergens. Download now.

Learn more

The Food Allergy Center at Children's Health is the only academic-affiliated pediatric food allergy center in North Texas. Our team can diagnose and treat a broad range of allergic diseases in children. Learn more about our program and services.

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