HealthLinkBC File #100a, July 2013
Severe Food Allergies in Children and Teenagers
- What is a food allergy?
- What are the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction?
- How is a severe allergic reaction treated?
- What foods can cause a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis in children and teenagers?
- What can I do to help avoid a reaction?
- What can I do when my child goes to school or child care?
- For More Information
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy happens when the body mistakes a food as harmful. The food that causes the reaction is called an allergen. An allergic reaction is the body's immune system fighting back. The severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis (an-nah-fil-axe-is). It can happen quickly and can be life threatening.
If you are not sure whether your child is at risk of a severe allergic reaction, ask your child's doctor or nurse practitioner. If your child has severe food allergies, ask your child's health care provider to write an emergency anaphylaxis plan that explains what to do in case of an allergic reaction. Children at risk of a severe food allergy should see an allergist. Preschool children should see a pediatric allergist.
What are the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction?
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction can start within minutes of eating or being exposed to the food, but usually occur within 2 hours. Do not ignore early symptoms. When a reaction begins, it is important to respond right away.
Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction can vary from person to person. The same person can have different symptoms each time they have a severe allergic reaction. Symptoms can include any of the following:
- Skin: hives, swelling (including throat, tongue, lips or eyes), itching, warmth, redness, rash, pale or blue coloured skin.
- Breathing: coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, throat tightness, hoarse voice, nasal congestion or hay fever-like symptoms (such as runny, itchy nose, watery eyes and sneezing), trouble swallowing.
- Stomach: vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain or diarrhea.
- Heart: weak pulse, feeling faint, dizzy or lightheaded, passing out
- Other: trouble swallowing, runny nose, itchy watery eyes, sneezing, anxiety, headache, or uterine cramps in teenage girls.
A severe reaction can take place without hives, so make sure to look out for all of the signs of an allergic reaction.
The above section has been adapted from: Anaphylaxis in Schools and Other Settings, Copyright 2005-2009 Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
How is a severe allergic reaction treated?
When a reaction begins, it is important to respond right away. Do not wait. Treat the severe allergic reaction with a medication called epinephrine (eh-puh-NEH-fren). Epinephrine comes in a pre-loaded syringe called an auto-injector. This medication helps reverse the allergic reaction and can save the child's life.
|Steps for treating a severe allergic reaction:
Children with severe food allergies must always carry epinephrine or keep it near them. Young children might need an adult to carry it, such as a family member, child care provider or teacher. Consider having your child wear a MedicAlert® bracelet.
What foods can cause a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis in children and teenagers?
The most common foods that can cause severe allergic reactions in children and teenagers include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts or walnuts, fish and shellfish, sesame seeds, soy, and wheat.
What can I do to help avoid a reaction?
Children and teenagers with severe food allergies must avoid eating even very small amounts of the food that they are allergic to. Steps you can take to lower the chance of an allergic reaction include:
- Learn how to recognize allergens on food labels. For information about food allergens and food labelling, visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website at www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/labeti/allerg/allerge.shtml.
- Read food labels each time you shop and before preparing foods. Ingredient lists can change from time to time. Do not give your child products without ingredient lists or food from bulk bins.
- Try new foods at home where you can watch your child. When away from home, your child should only eat foods brought from home or approved by you.
- Fully wash kitchen equipment and surfaces before preparing foods for your child. This will help prevent an allergen your child can't eat from getting into their food.
- Serve each food using clean dishes and utensils. Place these on a clean napkin or clean place mat rather than directly on the table.
- Everyone should wash their hands before and after eating - help young children to wash their hands.
- Make sure your child's epinephrine is with them or near them every time your child eats.
- Watch young children while they are eating.
- Children should not share or trade food or utensils, such as spoons, straws, cups or napkins.
- After meals and snacks, clean and sanitize the table and tabletop items.
- Teach your child not to put objects, such as pencils, in their mouth.
Being well prepared for an accidental exposure to an allergen will help to keep your child safe. Here are some steps you can take:
Prepare the school or child care facility
- Give the facility a copy of your child's emergency anaphylaxis plan.
- Work with the staff to develop a care plan for your child.
- Give written consent for all staff to give your child epinephrine for a severe allergic reaction. Do not sign anything that releases the facility of responsibility if epinephrine is not given.
- Give the facility an epinephrine auto-injector for your child. Ask that it be kept in a secure, unlocked place that is easy to access. Provide a new one before the expiry date.
- Update the facility on your child's allergies at the start of each school year or whenever your child's food allergies change.
For more information on allergies and child care facilities, see HealthLinkBC File #100c Allergy Safe Child Care Facilities.
Prepare your child
When your child is ready, you can help prepare your child to manage their severe food allergy.
- Teach your child what to do to help avoid an allergic reaction.
- Teach your child to tell someone if they are exposed to an allergen or if they have a reaction or symptoms.
- Teach your child how to give them self epinephrine and to carry it at all times, such as in a waist pack. It should not be kept in a school locker.
- Your teen's friends should know about your child's food allergies, where they keep their auto-injector, and how and when to use it.
For More Information
If you have questions about food allergies, call 8-1-1 to speak with a registered dietitian.
For more information about understanding and managing anaphylaxis, visit the following websites:
- Anaphylaxis Canada www.anaphylaxis.ca
- Allergy Safe Communities www.allergysafecommunities.ca
- Allergy/Asthma Information Association www.aaia.ca.
For information specific for teens and young adults visit the Why Risk it website at www.whyriskit.ca.
For more HealthLinkBC File topics, visit www.HealthLinkBC.ca/healthfiles/ or your local public health unit.
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