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Managing a Severe Food Allergy

By Melissa Bienvenu
WebMD Feature

Managing a child's food allergy sounds simple: Just avoid the trigger food. As any parent knows, that can be a challenge. Knowing how to prevent and handle a severe reaction can help you both feel more confident.

Common Food Allergies in Children

An allergic reaction happens when the body's immune system thinks something in a food (usually a protein) is harmful. Children are most likely to be allergic to peanuts and cow's milk. But they can also be allergic to:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Tree Nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are usually the most severe and last a lifetime. Your child may outgrow other food allergies.

Severe Food Allergy Symptoms

Your child is likely to have a reaction within a few minutes to an hour after eating a problem food. Symptom of a mild allergy include:

  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain

Symptoms of a severe allergy can include those listed above, as well as: 

  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing because of throat swelling
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Drop in blood pressure, causing dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain

The most dangerous reaction, anaphylaxis, is a medical emergency. When it happens, the throat swells, preventing breathing or swallowing. The heart rate rises as blood pressure drops. If not treated, anaphylaxis can be fatal.

Be Ready for a Severe Reaction

Your child's doctor can create a food allergy and anaphylaxis emergency care plan. This helps everyone in your child's life know how to spot a reaction and what to do. 

The doctor will likely prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector. Learn how to use it, and keep two doses with your child at all times. Use the injector at the first sign of a reaction. If you suspect anaphylaxis, call 911. 

Get your child a medical ID bracelet or necklace to wear.

Avoid Hidden Threats

The best way to prevent a reaction is to avoid problem foods. But allergy triggers can hide in packaged foods. To be safe:  

Read the label. Even trace amounts can do harm. Reading food labels is one of the “most important thing you can do to keep your child safe," says Lynda Mitchell, vice president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and founder of its Kids With Food Allergies division.

By law, labels must plainly state if a product contains a common allergy trigger. Sometimes, the food is listed in parentheses after the ingredient -- for example, "whey (milk)." Other times, you can find it in a separate statement. For example: "Contains: wheat, milk, soy." 

Avoid cross contact. Unsafe foods or food particles may touch a safe food in kitchens or processing plants. Dust from peanuts can drift onto candy bars without nuts if a candy maker isn’t careful. Food labels don't have to state if the item was processed near or with the same equipment as a common allergen. 

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