Could your child have a food allergy?

Whether it’s a sneezing fit or a dramatic swelling, an allergy can be frightening for children – and hard to identify. Our guide will help you deal with it.

Everyone knows about the scarier reactions, such as peanut allergies, which can see sufferers suddenly experiencing life-threatening anaphylactic shock requiring emergency treatment. But even innocent foods like eggs or milk can cause allergies in children, triggering an overreaction by our immune system to cause anything from itchy skin to swelling.

Most food allergies are mild, luckily, particularly in children, and young children often grow out of them by the time they start school. But new allergies can start at any time, even if a food has previously caused no problem, and some foods can cause serious lifelong problems, so it pays to keep your eyes open.

What are the symptoms?

The most serious – and often unexpected – reactions to food might include instant coughing and choking, swelling of the hands or face and a spread of redness across the skin. These kinds of symptoms require immediate emergency help.

Less serious symptoms include sneezing, coughing, itchiness to various parts such as nose, face, ears, eyes or throat, shortness of breath or wheezing, and sinus problems.

Who is likely to have an allergy?

If anyone in your immediate family has a history of asthma, eczema, suffers badly from hayfever, or has an existing known allergy, this may increase the chances of an inherited predisposition, so it’s worth being cautious with common allergens.

What can you do about a suspected allergy?

Anyone with a serious allergy will be issued with an emergency treatment they can carry with them, such as an Epi-Pen, a small injection that will give the sufferer time to seek emergency medical help.

If your child suffers less serious symptoms, speak to your GP about possible referral to a specialist. In either case, complete avoidance of a particular food is essential. This is easier said than done, however, as some glues contain traces of wheat, toiletries can contain soya, egg or tree nut oil and some pet foods may have milk or peanuts in, so read labels carefully.

Five common food allergies

Keep an eye out for reactions when your children eat these foods – but remember, avoiding an entire food group can affect a healthy diet, so consult your GP for an official diagnosis before taking action.


Most sufferers outgrow this allergy before starting school. Common reactions include a red bumpy rash, redness and swelling around the mouth, stomach cramps, feeling or being sick, and diarrhoea. It might also cause a runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing or provoke an asthmatic condition. In extreme cases it can cause anaphylaxis.


This allergy can affect as many as 7% of babies but by about three years, about 80% of these sufferers will have outgrown it. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include a rash, stomach cramps, diarrhoea or vomiting, and difficulty breathing. Parents should consult their child’s doctor before cutting milk and other dairy products out completely.


Soya is used in over half of all manufactured foods. It is a widely recognised food allergen so luckily it has to be flagged up on packaging, but foods that are not pre-packed (breads, snacks etc) should be avoided. A soya allergy can be relatively mild so consult your GP about how far you should go in avoiding ingredients.


An allergic reaction can include itchy eyes, rhinitis and asthma, or an upset stomach and skin problems like eczema. Happily, wheat-free alternatives to common foods like bread and pasta are widely available. An allergy to gluten (which is in wheat, oats, rye and barley) is associated with Coeliac Disease, so a GP’s diagnosis is important.


Around 80% of children with a peanut allergy will carry it into adulthood. Those who have been diagnosed with a peanut allergy are likely to be given a portable dose of adrenalin to counter any serious anaphylactic allergic reaction. Although many people with peanut allergies are not allergic to other ‘true’ nuts, it can be safer to avoid all ‘contains nuts’ products.

Savvy tip

Allergy and intolerance are very different things. Find out more at Food allergy and intolerance Pass it on – support and advice

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