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  • Writer's pictureTy Bailey

How Do I Know If My Child Has a Food Allergy?

Was that a stomach bug or did a particular food make your child sick? Are you worried about your child having a serious reaction to foods that are commonly associated with food allergies? Here's what you need to know to keep your kids (and you) safe.

Especially when your child is just being introduced to new foods, there is a lot of fear about food allergies and little ones having adverse reactions to certain snacks and meals. For a comprehensive list of the foods you should not give to a child under the age of one year, please refer to the Family Education website's post: Foods to Never Feed Your Baby (3 Months of Age to 1 Year).

For those beyond this age range and healthily able to experiment with a more diverse menu, read on to learn more about how to determine if your child has a food allergy or if they're just experiencing a sensitivity or intolerance to certain foods.

What is the Difference Between a Food Allergy and a Food Sensitivity?

Thankfully, the main difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity (or intolerance) is one that's quite clear.

When a child (or adult) has a food intolerance or food sensitivity, this results in an adverse response within the digestive tract. This may lead to gas, discomfort, diarrhea, or even vomiting. Although these symptoms are quite unpleasant, the reaction in these cases is not life-threatening. (However, do be sure to keep an eye on hydration levels if any diarrhea or vomiting occurs and is persistent.)

When someone has a true food allergy, their bodily response can be life-threatening thanks to anaphylaxis (which is when the airway closes due to swelling in response to an allergen). These individuals must be extremely careful about cross-contamination of the foods they eat and "hidden" ingredients in some products, and they will need to carry an epinephrine autoinjector with them in the event of an emergency.

Food sensitivities are uncomfortable and unpleasant, but food allergies are a serious health risk.

Food Sensitivities/Food Intolerances

Food sensitivities can develop at any age, and changes in a person's body over the years can lead to new sensitivities to foods you may have often enjoyed many times before. Usually, this just results in a slight rash and some itching, gas and bloating, or a serious stomach ache. For those who indulge themselves in a particular food they can't tolerate, the reaction may be a bit stronger (i.e., vomiting and diarrhea).

The severity of the reaction to a food sensitivity often depends upon the amount of that particular food that was ingested as well as the level of intolerance. As an example, some lactose-intolerant individuals can eat a bowl of ice cream and just deal with some flatulence for a while after, while others may find themselves trapped in the bathroom for much longer.

Thankfully, aside from the dehydration risk associated with diarrhea and vomiting, these sensitivities and intolerances are not life-threatening and can usually be managed by treating the specific symptoms the person is experiencing and simply avoiding the food that triggers such a response as often as possible. If you happen to eat some of your body's least tolerated foods, though, you'll survive—you'll just have a rather unenjoyable gastrointestinal experience coming your way in a few hours.

What are some of the common food sensitivities/intolerances?

Food sensitivities will vary among individuals, but there are a few that are more common amongst most people. These include the following:

  • Aspartame

  • Fructose

  • Eggs

  • Food colorings

  • Lactose (dairy)

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

  • FODMAPs (fermentable carbohydrates)

  • Gluten

  • Sugar alcohols

  • Sulfites (preservatives)

  • Yeast

Diagnosis and treatment of a food sensitivity/intolerance

Although there are now tests on the market that claim to be able to detect certain food sensitivities and intolerances, the most reliable way to determine if you have a food sensitivity is to keep a food diary or track your meals using an app. Making note of what you've eaten and when you experience any symptoms of intolerance will help you pinpoint which foods are causing you distress.

Once you've determined which foods seem to be causing your symptoms of intolerance, you can either reduce the frequency of how often you eat these foods or eliminate them from your diet entirely. Again, keeping track of what you eat and when, along with noting any symptoms, is the best way to determine what's bothering you and what may be the safest minimum amount you can consume before experiencing symptoms of intolerance.

If you continually struggle with digestive disturbances, especially if the symptoms are very frequent and don't appear to be associated with the consumption of certain foods, please consult with your primary care physician. Some of the symptoms of food sensitivities are very similar to other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease. This applies to all age groups.

Food Allergies

When the immune system decides it's going to react to a food one ingests, this is when a person has an actual food allergy. Some food allergies tend to be hereditary, but many develop over time or when the body and immune system experience significant changes. (This is especially true in pregnant individuals!)

Food allergies, unlike sensitivities or intolerances, are extremely serious medical emergencies. Although some individuals may initially have milder symptoms, these can rapidly escalate with each instance of exposure to the specific allergen. The most common symptoms of a food allergy causing an allergic reaction are itching around the ears, throat, or mouth; hives; and swelling of the tongue, lips, roof of the mouth, or around the person's eyes.

In the most severe cases of allergic reactions, anaphylaxis will occur, causing them to have trouble breathing, speaking, and swallowing, as well as experiencing a drop in blood pressure that may lead to fainting. This is a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate medical attention. If someone is experiencing symptoms of anaphylaxis, emergency medical services (i.e., 911) should be contacted immediately.

What are some of the most common food allergies?

A person may have or develop an allergy to any food, but some foods are more commonly associated with allergic reactions, such as:

  • Shellfish

  • Peanuts

  • Eggs

  • Fish

  • Milk

  • Tree nuts

  • Soy

  • Wheat

Diagnosis and treatment of food allergies

If you or your child experience symptoms of an allergic reaction when consuming or exposed to certain foods, be sure to make note of all interactions and the accompanying symptoms. These should be presented to your doctor or your child's pediatrician for a referral to an allergist (an allergy specialist).

Allergists are able to provide the appropriate testing to determine specific food allergies as well as provide a prescription for an emergency-use epinephrine autoinjector (such as an EpiPen) for those at risk of experiencing anaphylaxis if exposed to their particular allergen. In some cases, immunotherapy treatment is available for treating and reducing the symptoms of certain food allergies. Although many immunotherapy practices have been proven to work well for managing non-food allergies, not all patients have responded well to the desensitization process in relation to food allergies, so it's still a work in progress.

When to See a Doctor

If your child is regularly having adverse digestive responses to certain foods or experiences any symptoms of an allergic reaction after eating something, this should be brought to the attention of their pediatrician as soon as possible. Although food sensitivities and intolerances may just be unpleasant and inconvenient, diagnosing a genuine food allergy is essential in ensuring your child's safety when eating certain meals and making sure they receive the proper treatment.

The same goes for parents and caregivers that experience these same issues. If you develop adverse reactions that appear to be closely associated with certain foods or ingredients, please document as much information as possible and present it to your physician.

Additional Resources

At Tired Mama Resources, we're here to help provide as much information as possible to parents and caregivers that have questions about their child's health and wellbeing. However, although we try our best to cite credible sources for the information provided, the information on our website should not be substituted for seeking medical care or treatment for a child experiencing adverse reactions after consuming certain foods.

If you suspect that your child may have a food allergy or food intolerance, please speak with your child's pediatrician for further guidance.

For more information:

Johns Hopkins Medicine: Food Allergies in Children

Healthline: Kids and Food Allergies - What to Look For

Kids with Food Allergies (A Division of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America)

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