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How Would My Child Describe An Allergic Reaction?

Children often describe food allergy symptoms in unique ways. Learn different ways children may tell you about food allergic reaction symptoms.

How do you know if your child is experiencing an allergic reaction to a food? Children could describe their symptoms in several different ways. Today, we’ll go over the most common food allergy reaction symptoms, and some of the ways your child might alert you to these symptoms. But first, we’ll explain exactly what a food allergy is, and the foods that most commonly cause food allergic reactions. 

What is a food allergy?

Food allergies involve over-defensive responses of the immune system. Normally, our immune systems defend our bodies against viruses, bacteria, and other “invaders” that could be harmful to our health.

But when someone has a food allergy, their immune system treats certain foods like harmful invaders, and over-defends the body against these foods. 

Their immune system makes special antibodies, called specific IgE antibodies that detect the proteins from foods they are allergic to. When the IgE antibodies detect those proteins, they trigger the release of histamines and other chemicals. 

The release of these chemicals causes symptoms of an allergic reaction to develop. The most common symptoms of food allergies include hives (raised bumps), vomiting, redness and swelling. 

Usually, food allergy reaction symptoms develop within seconds to minutes after someone eats a food they’re allergic to — and almost always within two hours after someone eats a “problem” food. 

Most Common Food Allergies in Children – Peanut, Egg, Milk

Someone could develop a food allergy to any food. So, any food could potentially cause a food allergy reaction. 

However, nine types of foods (peanut, tree nuts, eggs, cow’s milk, soy, wheat, sesame, finned fish and shellfish)  are involved in over 90% of all food allergy reactions in children and adults. 

And in children, especially in younger children, three foods are responsible for over 80% of food allergy reactions. Those foods are peanuts, eggs, and cow’s milk.

Peanut, egg, and cow’s milk allergies also have the largest impact on quality of life. Peanut allergy is one of the food allergies most likely to cause a severe reaction. And milk and egg are two of the hardest foods to avoid, since they’re such common ingredients. 

Symptoms Of Food Allergies

The most common symptom of childhood food allergies is hives. These are raised, often itchy bumps that are usually either red or the color of a child’s skin. Hives in one area of the body indicate a mild food allergy reaction. But if widespread hives appear all over the body, this indicates a severe allergic reaction. 

Vomiting is another common symptom of a food allergy (occasional vomiting is a mild symptom, while repeated vomiting is a more severe symptom). 

Swelling rounds out the most common childhood food allergy symptoms. Most commonly, it will be the face, lips, or eyes that swell up during a food allergy reaction. All of these types of swelling are considered mild symptoms. 

Other possible symptoms of a food allergy include:

Mild symptoms:

  • Skin redness in one area
  • Itchiness
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Congestion
  • Some stomach pain
  • Some nausea
  • Mild coughing
  • Worsening eczema, if baby already has eczema

Severe symptoms:

  • Swelling or tightness of the throat
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Repeated, significant coughing
  • Noisy breathing (wheezing)
  • Pale appearance
  • Trouble speaking or vocalizing (this could include slurred speech)
  • Change in voice or cry (for example, a hoarse-sounding or squeaky voice)
  • Chest pain
  • Diarrhea 
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Feeling of impending doom (like something very bad is going to happen)
  • Feeling floppy (only in infants and young children)

A Note On Anaphylaxis: When the symptoms of a food allergy reaction are severe and involve more than one system of the body, this is known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening. If your child shows signs of anaphylaxis, call 911, and inject epinephrine (use an Epi-Pen) immediately.

Keep in mind that symptoms of a food allergy reaction can vary from one reaction to the next. So, it’s impossible to predict the symptoms of future food allergy reactions. 

Common Symptoms in Children: How Would a Child Describe Them?

Now that you know the possible symptoms of a food allergy, how would your child describe them?  After all, kids might not always identify the strange symptoms they experience the same way we know them (especially when they’re younger).

And sometimes, your child may feel symptoms that you can’t see. For example, hives and vomiting are clearly visible, but you won’t know about other symptoms (like tongue swelling and stomach pain) unless your child alerts you. 

If you think your child is experiencing a food allergy, ask them “What do you feel?” or “How do you feel?” They may not know to alert you. 

You don’t want to lose precious time needed to treat a food allergy reaction because you don’t understand that your child is experiencing symptoms. 

Here are some ways children may describe a food allergy reaction, based on information from FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education). 

  • “My stomach hurts” /”my tummy hurts” (describing stomach pain)
  • “My skin is itchy” (describing itchiness and/or hives)
  • “It’s too spicy” (when a food causes hives in the mouth or tongue)
  • “My tongue is hot” / “My tongue is burning” /”My tongue is itchy” / “My tongue is tingly”
  • “My mouth is itching” / “My mouth is tingling”/ “My mouth feels hot”
  • “Something is poking my tongue” (likely hives)
  • “It feels like  hair on my tongue” (again, likely hives)
  • “There’s a bump on the back of my throat” / “… bump on the back of my tongue” (a hive cluster)
  • “Something’s stuck in my throat” (congestion or throat tightness)
  • “My lips feel tight” / “My lips feel funny”
  • “There are bugs in there” (referring to hives or itchiness in or on the ears)
  • “My tongue feels funny” / “My tongue is heavy” “My tongue feels full”
  • “My eyes are burny” / “My eyes are itching”
  • “My chest feels tight”
  • “There are bumps on me” / “There are bumps in my mouth”
  • “There’s  a weird taste in my mouth”
  • “Something bad is happening” / “Something’s wrong”

What Other Signs Could Indicate An Allergic Reaction?

But what if your child doesn’t — or can’t — verbalize their symptoms? For example, what if they’re very young, or their symptoms impair their ability to speak?

These other signs may also alert you to an allergic reaction:

  • Scratching or pulling at their tongue
  • Sticking hands in the mouth (in older children who don’t do this regularly)
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty speaking
  • A changed voice or cry, such as a scratchy, hoarse or squeaky voice
  • Pulling on the ears
  • Excessive crying, when other symptoms occur
  • Visible panic or fear

What to Do If Your Child Is Having an Allergic Reaction?

If you suspect that your child is having a food allergy reaction (of any severity), stop feeding them the food(s) that you believe triggered the reaction. Then, follow the action steps below depending on if the reaction is mild or severe.  

Mild Allergic Reactions

If your child has a mild allergic reaction, and your doctor has already recommended a dose of antihistamine as a treatment (like Zyrtec or Benadryl), you can give your child the recommended dose. Antihistamine helps stop the release of the histamine that triggers allergic reaction symptoms. However, it can only stop a mild or moderate allergic reaction (not a severe one).

If your doctor hasn’t yet recommended antihistamine, call your pediatrician or allergist to alert them about the hives. Tell them what foods your child ate within two hours of the start of symptoms. Then, ask them what steps you should take next. 

Most importantly, closely monitor your child in case their mild symptoms turn severe. Any mild food allergy reaction could potentially worsen, and could even possibly develop into anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction). 

Severe Allergic Reactions

If your child develops only one severe symptom of an allergic reaction (such as widespread hives), call your doctor right away.   If you have epinephrine (an Epi-Pen), give your child an injection. Antihistamine will not be able to stop severe symptoms. 

Continue to monitor your child for other severe symptoms of an allergic reaction. If other severe symptoms emerge, your child will have anaphylaxis.

If your child develops severe symptoms in two or more body systems, your child is experiencing life-threatening anaphylaxis, and needs immediate emergency assistance. 

Inject epinephrine (an Epi-Pen) immediately. Pull off the safety cap, make a fist around the injector, place the needle end on the side of your child’s thigh, push down firmly, and hold for ten seconds. Then, call 911. Tell the emergency operator that you injected epinephrine.

If you do not have epinephrine, call 911 immediately! Your child will need epinephrine as soon as possible. 

One example of anaphylaxis: Widespread hives (on the skin) and severe, repeated vomiting (the digestive system) = severe symptoms in two body systems.

Remember that epinephrine is the only medicine that can stop anaphylaxis. Antihistamines cannot stop this severe reaction. 

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All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.