6 Questions About Food Allergies, Answered by a Dietitian

From physical reactions to dietary management, the thought of food allergies can be frightening for parents of potentially affected children.

There’s a great deal of misinformation out there, so arming yourself with knowledge on how to spot a food allergy — and what to do next — is the best way to manage the condition and calm any fears. 

While a diagnosis can be scary, it’s important to remember that there is plenty of information on ingredient labels and that a widening variety of safe products are available. 

Here are some frequent questions I’ve received from parents: 

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy is the immune system’s response to a protein found in a particular food. Reactions range from mild to severe, and they usually occur shortly after a person consumes a trigger food. 

What are common symptoms of a food allergy?

The immune system can respond in a number of ways, and the response can vary from one reaction to the next. 

In general, reactions may include skin problems (hives, swelling or an itchy rash), breathing problems (sneezing, wheezing or throat tightness), stomach symptoms (nausea, vomiting or diarrhea) or circulation symptoms (pale skin, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness).

Anaphylaxis is a severe or life-threatening allergic reaction that affects more than one area of the body. It requires immediate medical attention.

What are the most common food allergens in children?

While anyone can develop an allergy to just about any food, six foods account for 90 percent of food allergies in children:

  • Milk
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat

Because these foods are typically introduced at an early age, understanding the signs and symptoms of food allergies — and knowing how to distinguish a food allergy from something else — is important.

How is a food allergy diagnosed?

If you suspect your child has a food allergy, see your pediatrician right away and ask for a referral to a board-certified allergist. 

A combination of skin and blood tests may be used to diagnose the allergy. The most accurate method, however, is a controlled oral test conducted by medical professionals.

What happens after a food allergy diagnosis?

If your child has more than one food allergy, it’s a good idea to consult with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in allergies to ensure your child’s diet is varied enough to support healthy growth and development.

There are also many resources and support groups available to help prepare you for this lifestyle change. Instead of being concerned about a food allergy, focus on what your child can safely eat — rather than on his or her limitations. 

Do children outgrow food allergies?

Children with allergies to milk, eggs and soy are more likely to outgrow it by age 16. Those with other allergies, particularly peanut and tree nut allergies, are more likely to have it their entire lives. 

For more information, read this summary of recent research about outgrowing food allergies.

Food allergies require dietary adjustments, but with the right approach and resources, you can manage them safely — and you’ll find there are plenty of kid-friendly recipes to help the entire family enjoy a healthy and balanced diet. (You can read some of my other blog posts for some great dairy-free recipes and to learn more about a gluten-free diet.)

For further reading, the following are great resources for parents:

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