Children eat morning, noon and night and usually a few times in between. Most of the time, you try to find the quickest and healthiest food that will hold them over until the next meal. We asked Dr. Robbie Pesek from our Allergy and Immunology program to share some information about food allergies, the best way to treat them and how to plan ahead for school and camps.

Before we get into symptoms and treatment, let’s first start with the basics.

    What is a food allergy?

  • The immune system (which usually fights germs) is mistakenly “attacking” food proteins.
  • Food allergies can be severe or life-threatening (anaphylaxis).
  • Food "intolerance" is different from food allergy. Lactose intolerance, a problem with digesting the sugar in milk, is not life-threatening.

    What are the most common types of food that trigger allergies in kids?

  • The most common food allergies are milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

    How common are food allergies and at what age do children start showing symptoms?

  • Food allergies affect approximately 8% of all children in the U.S. Children can show symptoms at ANY age with symptoms but we often see them during their first year of life.
  • Note: Your child is more likely to have food allergies if your child has other allergies (like asthma, eczema and hay fever). 

    What symptoms should parents/caregivers be aware of if their child is having an allergic reaction to food? 

  • The most common symptoms we see that should raise concern of an allergic reaction are hives, swelling of the face or other parts of the body, vomiting or difficulty breathing. 
  • Most of these symptoms will occur within one hour (often within minutes) of ingesting the food. 

    What is the main difference between food allergies and food sensitivity or intolerance?

  • Food allergies are related to a reaction triggered by the immune system. This means they are likely to occur again in the future if the food is re-ingested and can lead to serious adverse events such as anaphylaxis.
  • Food sensitivity or intolerance is not related to the immune system and has no risk of an allergic reaction like anaphylaxis.

    How are food allergies treated (in most cases)? 

  • Currently, most food allergies are treated by avoiding the food. Patients and families will also receive an epinephrine auto-injector in case of a future allergic reaction. We are now starting to treat food allergies with something called oral immunotherapy (OIT) where a child is exposed to very small amounts of the food overtime to try and "desensitize" them so that they don't react in the future.  Other forms of treatment are also being researched.

    What should parents or caregivers do if they think their child has a food allergy?

  • The first thing is to try and identify the food that caused the symptoms.
  • If it can be identified, the parents should avoid that food until they can see their healthcare provider or an allergist for additional evaluation. 

    If a child has food allergies, how can parents or caregivers plan ahead and prepare their children for school, day camps, etc.? 

  • Parents/caregivers should meet with their child’s teachers and schools staff to discuss the allergies and educate them on which foods need to be avoided. 
  • They should have a written food allergy action plan in case an accidental food exposure occurs and check to make sure that the school or camp has access to the epinephrine auto-injector.

Do you need more information on food allergies?

Visit our Food Allergies section