Food allergies can have a significant effect on a child’s daily life. Having an in-depth conversation with your doctor at the time of diagnosis can help eliminate any confusion about this chronic condition.

When your body’s immune system reacts to a typically harmless substance, it’s known as an allergy. Allergies are one of the most common chronic diseases, and there are many different types of allergens (substances that cause allergic responses) that can create problems for kids.

Pediatric allergies are also common. Approximately 8% of children in the United States live with a food allergy, and as many as 40% of those children have needed emergency medical care for their allergy.

After an initial diagnosis, you’ll have a lot of questions. Talking with your child’s pediatrician or allergist armed with a good list can help you feel empowered about managing symptoms and triggers.

Here’s what to consider covering in your conversation.

Food intolerance and food allergy are caused by different underlying processes in your body.

With food intolerance, your digestive system has difficulty breaking down and processing certain foods. Food allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a food, causing an inflammatory response in the body.

Food intolerance can cause significant discomfort, but it isn’t a life threatening condition. Food allergies always have the potential to be life threatening.

Your doctor can discuss why your child’s symptoms align with food allergy rather than food intolerance.

A life threatening allergic reaction is known as anaphylaxis. In anaphylaxis, the body experiences a rapid allergic reaction that affects multiple organ systems. It can drop your blood pressure dangerously low, restrict your breathing, cause a loss of consciousness, and may eventually result in cardiac arrest.

Anyone with a food allergy can have an anaphylactic reaction at some point in their life. There’s no way to predict the severity of an allergic reaction based on past experiences.

Your doctor can discuss what signs to look for in your child based on their age. In very young children, for example, the initial signs of anaphylaxis can be different than in older children.

Very young children may be more likely than older children and adults to develop skin reactions, vomiting, diarrhea, and a hoarse voice. They’re less likely to present with trouble breathing or an itchy throat.

Anaphylaxis symptoms in children can vary but may include:

  • facial swelling
  • rapid heart rate
  • difficulty breathing
  • nausea or vomiting
  • body-wide hives or itching
  • fainting or dizziness
  • confusion

These symptoms may not always be obvious, especially in very young children. Early signs to watch for can include:

  • back arching
  • inconsolable crying
  • blue or gray skin tone
  • becoming wobbly or limp
  • tongue thrusting or pulling
  • repetitive lip licking
  • ear pulling or scratching
  • belly breathing
  • nostril flaring
  • hoarse cry
  • grabbing or pulling at the neck

Your doctor can tell you which symptoms may be more likely based on your child’s age and development.

Generally speaking, your child’s food allergy may be considered severe if their first exposure reaction (called their primary reaction) is severe. A mild first reaction to a food allergen doesn’t guarantee your child has a mild allergy, however.

Food allergies can be unpredictable. It’s possible to have a severe reaction even after a long history of mild reactions.

Developing an anaphylaxis action plan with your doctor will help you be prepared if your child should develop severe food allergy symptoms.

Food allergy testing can help confirm if your child is sensitive to a specific food allergen, but it can’t predict the severity of symptoms.

Your doctor can discuss food allergy testing options, like skin tests, blood work, or elimination diets, to help pinpoint which foods your child may have a reaction to.

Food allergy symptoms can develop within a few minutes or up to 2 hours after eating. In rare cases, symptoms may take as long as 6 hours to develop. How sensitive your child is to an allergen, how much of it they were exposed to, and how frequently they’ve been exposed to it can all play a role.

Consider asking your doctor about keeping a symptom journal to help you recognize patterns related to symptom onset and duration.

Most children will outgrow their food allergies to milk, soy, wheat, or egg. Only about 25% will outgrow a peanut allergy, however, and even fewer will outgrow a tree nut allergy.

Fish and shellfish allergies tend to be lifelong.

Your doctor can explain your child’s chances of experiencing a lifelong allergy based on their age of diagnosis, which allergy they’ve developed, and other medical conditions that might have an impact.

There’s no cure for food allergies, but they can be successfully managed through food avoidance and safety planning.

Some children may be candidates for treatments that modify the immune system and reduce reactions to certain allergens, like peanuts. These treatments, which often involve taking medication or wearing a skin patch, won’t cure the allergy completely but may reduce overall symptoms.

Because new therapies are constantly in development, talking with your doctor about what’s available may open up therapeutic opportunities for your child.

Cross-reactive foods are foods similar to an allergen and might cause a similar reaction.

If your child has a peanut allergy, for example, other nuts with similar protein makeup might also lead to allergic symptoms. Or, if your child has a cow milk allergy, other animal milk products, like goat milk or sheep milk, might also cause symptoms.

Your doctor can talk with you about which foods have a higher chance of reactivity based on your child’s primary food allergy.

Your doctor will develop a food allergy plan with you that outlines what to do if your child accidentally ingests a food allergen.

For children with a history of mild reactions, the first step might be to administer an antihistamine, like Benadryl, and call the doctor’s office. For other children, food allergy first aid may involve immediate administration of epinephrine to help prevent anaphylaxis, as well as a trip to the emergency room.

What you do for your child will depend on their individual food allergy symptoms and allergy history.

Your doctor can direct you to local support networks, school programs, and community outreach opportunities for children living with food allergies.

You can also learn more about food allergies or find support groups by visiting:

Many children live with food allergies. By connecting with caregivers who share your experience, you can learn more about practical management tips and how others have found success.