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Food allergies in children

Food allergies are on the rise, particularly in children. While the cause for this rise is not yet known, an understanding of food allergies can help you recognise the symptoms early. Having this understanding may also help you identify whether your child is more likely to develop a food allergy.

What is an allergy?

Allergies occur where a person's immune system overreacts to a substance. In Australia, an estimated 1 in 20 children (5 percent) are affected by a food allergy. For a person with a food allergy, the body responds to a harmless substance in the food, usually a protein, as though it were toxic. This immune system overreaction can cause a number of symptoms.

What are the symptoms of a food allergy?

Symptoms of a food allergy will typically appear within 30 minutes of eating the allergen food.

Mild-to-moderate allergic reaction

  • Tingling in the mouth
  • Hives, welts or body redness
  • Swelling of the face, lips, eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain

Severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)

  • Difficulty and/or noisy breathing
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Swelling or tightness in the throat
  • Difficulty talking or hoarse voice
  • Wheeze or persistent cough
  • Loss of consciousness and/or collapse
  • Young children become ‘pale and floppy’.

How is a food allergy different to food intolerance?

Food intolerance is an adverse reaction to a chemical in a food or drink. It differs from a food allergy in that no immune response is involved.

Common symptoms of food intolerance include:

  • irritable bowel
  • headaches
  • migraines
  • fatigue
  • behavioural problems

Asthma symptoms can also be triggered in some people.

The severity of an adverse reaction is linked to the amount a person consumes of the culprit food – the more a person consumes, the more severe the adverse reaction will be.

It is common for patients with food intolerance to react to several chemicals that are found in a wide range of foods. A family history of symptoms and specific chemical intolerances is common.

It can be difficult to determine whether a person has an allergy or intolerance to certain foods so it is important to see your doctor for a diagnosis.

What are the most common childhood food allergies?

Most children grow out of their food allergies by adolescence, especially children who are allergic to milk, egg, soybean or wheat. However, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are more likely to be life-long.

Approximately 90 percent of food allergies are a result of:

  • cow's milk
  • hen's eggs
  • soybeans
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts (almond, Brazil, cashew)
  • wheat
  • fish and shellfish

Do food allergies run in families?

Having a family member with an allergic condition increases your chances of developing an allergy like asthma or hay fever. This association is less clear with food allergies as their development seem to be influenced by environment as well as genetic factors.

Most children with a food allergy do not have parents with a food allergy. If one child in the family has a food allergy, however, there can be a slightly higher risk for siblings.

Can food allergies be prevented?

While there is no known way of preventing food allergies, there are strategies that may minimise the likelihood of a food allergy developing:

  • There is some evidence to support the theory that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child's life can decrease the risk of a child developing a food allergy. Where this is not possible, it is recommended that a hydrolysed formula is used (where some of the proteins in the cow's milk have been broken down).
  • Delaying the introduction of solids to 4–6 months.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that delaying the introduction of peanuts or other allergenic foods decreases the risk of food allergy. There is some evidence emerging to suggest that the reverse is true – the early introduction of allergenic foods may help prevent food allergy in infants and children. However, it’s not recommended foods containing highly allergenic components, such as peanut butter, be one of the first solid foods to be introduced. For whole peanuts and tree nuts, your doctor can guide you on when and how these foods can be introduced.

How can allergic reactions to food be minimised?

It is important to know which foods trigger a child's allergy and know how to avoid them. When a child is exposed to an allergen food for the first time the reaction may not be serious. However, subsequent exposures to the allergen food can bring on increasingly severe reactions – even to the point of becoming life threatening. An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can help you remove any problem foods from your child’s diet, suggest alternatives to make sure they don’t miss out on essential nutrients, and help them maintain a healthy, balanced diet.

What first aid should be administered for food allergies?

The first time a child has an allergic reaction may be frightening but allergic reactions can be managed.

  • For severe allergic reactions, seek medical assistance by dialling 000 immediately when symptoms appear. These may include dizziness, difficulty breathing or swelling of the tongue.
  • For a child with a known severe food allergy, follow their anaphylaxis action plan. This plan will typically include administering adrenalin using an auto-injector pen – fatalities occur most often when adrenalin is either not used or delayed. Your doctor or pharmacist can show you how to use this device. It’s also a good idea to show family, friends and other caregivers how to use it.
  • For mild allergic reactions, administering an antihistamine and monitoring the child for worsening symptoms may be all that is required.
  • Talk to your GP for further advice and information.

Further information


Access Economics Pty Ltd. The economic impact of allergic disease in Australia. [online] 2007. [Accessed 30 Apr 2014] Available from:

Allergy and Anaphylaxis Australia. What is anaphylaxis? [Accessed 29 Apr 2014] Available from:

Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. Food Allergy. [online] [Accessed 29 Apr 2014] Available from

Better Health Channel. Food Allergy and Intolerance. [online] [Last reviewed Oct 2011, accessed 29 Apr 2014] Available from:

Dreskin SC. Genetics of food allergy. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2006; 6: 58–64.

Fleischer DM Spergel JM Assa AH Pongracic JA. Primary prevention of allergic disease through nutritional interventions. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2013; 1: 29–36.

Hodge L Swain A Faulkner-Hogg K. Food Allergy and Intolerance. Aust Fam Physician. 2009; 38: 705-–707.

Loblay R Soutter V Swain A et al. Prevalence of food allergy in childcare in central Sydney (CSAHS) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Internal Med J. 2006; 36 (Suppl 6):A209.

Mullins RJ. Paediatric food allergy trends in a community-based specialist allergy practice, 1995-2006. Med J Aust. 2007; 186(12): 618-621.

Pali-Scholl I Renz H Jensen-Jarolim E. Update on allergies in pregnancy, lactation, and early childhood. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2009; 123(5): 1012–1021.

Raising Children Network. Food Allergies and Intolerances [online] [Last updated Aug 2012, accessed 29 Apr 2014] Available from

Schneider Chafen JJ Newberry SJ Reidl MA et al. Diagnosing and managing common food allergies. JAMA. 2010; 303: 1848–1856.

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Last updated: 1 May 2014


This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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