How to deal with food allergies in kids

Food allergies appear to be on the rise, so what can you do if your child develops one? 

Around one in 20 Australian children have a food allergy, affecting 10 per cent of children in their first year of life. Allergic reactions occur when the immune system mistakenly believes a harmless substance, such as milk, nuts, wheat or shellfish, is toxic, sparking an immune-system response that can be as severe as life-threatening anaphylaxis. We show you how to reduce the risk of developing a food allergy or having an allergic reaction.

Allergic reactions can range from relatively mild mouth tingling, rashes, vomiting, stomach cramps or diarrhoea to potentially deadly breathing difficulties, tongue and throat swelling and loss of consciousness in an anaphylactic reaction. 

If you suspect your child has a food allergy, your first point of call should be your doctor. They will look at your family history, do skin prick and blood tests, and get you to keep a food and symptom diary to help diagnose or eliminate a possible food allergy.

“Self-diagnosing food allergies may lead to restricting food or cutting out total food groups."

It’s important not to self-diagnose an allergy in a child, as this may result in food restrictions that put your child at unnecessary risk of nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition.

Reducing allergy risk

Scientists are yet to come up with a fail-safe allergy-prevention strategy, but they believe that breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a child’s life reduces their allergy risk. Some people mistakenly believe that reducing their child’s exposure to potential allergens will keep them protected, however allergy experts say the opposite is true and that introducing allergenic foods early could help prevent the development of a food allergy. However, in general there is no need to avoid giving foods that may cause allergies to young children.

child eating watermelon

Avoiding allergic reactions 

If you know your child has an allergy, the obvious aim is to limit their exposure to the allergen as much as possible. Educate your child on what foods they should avoid and let teachers and parents of their friends know about their allergy. Despite taking care, people can still have an accidental exposure. As such, they need an action plan for what to do, particularly if they have anaphylaxis. Some people with anaphylaxis will need to carry an adrenaline autoinjector.

Allergies versus intolerances 

Many people mistake food intolerances for allergies, but they’re actually quite different. Food intolerances are chemical reactions that can be caused by a certain amount of a natural substance in food such as MSG and salicylates. They are not an immune response and are usually not life-threatening. Common symptoms of food intolerances include irritable bowel, headaches, fatigue and behavioural problems.

It’s important to talk to a dietitian to work out what foods are causing the problem – this may involve an elimination diet, which means removing certain foods from the diet and slowly reintroducing them in small doses. 

Bupa Health Insurance

Need help managing food allergies? Our dietitians can offer personalised advice to help manage food allergies. A visit may be covered under your private health insurance.

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