Food allergies are becoming more common. Here we look at how to spot the signs of an allergy, help your child and cope emotionally.
What are food allergies?
An allergy is when your body has a reaction to a particular food or substance. Allergies are common in the UK, particularly among children. Some allergies will go away as a child gets older, while others are lifelong (NHS, 2016a).
In comparison, a food intolerance is when a person has trouble digesting a specific food (NHS, 2016b).
What are the most common food allergies?
The most common foods that cause allergic reactions are cow’s milk, nuts, eggs, foods containing gluten (e.g. wheat), seeds, fish and shellfish (NHS, 2018).
Most allergies are mild but some can cause a severe allergic reaction. Trying to figure out whether a child has an allergy can be difficult, so it’s good to be aware of the signs. It’s also good to keep in mind that some symptoms could indicate another issue like a food intolerance or they could be something else entirely (NHS, 2016b).
What are the symptoms of an allergy?
Symptoms might include:
- red itchy rash (eczema)
- mild swelling around the lips and eyes
- runny or blocked nose
- itchy eyes, ears, lips, throat or mouth
- mucus in their poo
- tummy cramps where the baby draws their knees up.
If you think your child has an allergy talk to your GP about their symptoms.
What is anaphylactic shock?
Occasionally, an allergy can lead to a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, which can be life threatening. This affects the whole body and usually develops within minutes of coming into contact with something the person is allergic to.
The symptoms of anaphylactic shock come on and worsen quickly. Its symptoms might include those listed above, as well as:
- throat and mouth swelling
- difficulty with swallowing or speaking
- difficulty breathing
- a fast heartbeat
- confusion, blue skin or lips, collapsing and losing consciousness.
Call 999 immediately if you suspect anaphylactic shock.
What is a cow’s milk allergy?
Cows’ milk allergy (CMA) is one of the most common childhood food allergies but it’s still rare (Allergy UK, 2018d). It’s also called cows’ milk protein allergy (CMPA). An estimated 1.8% to 7.5% of babies up to one year old have CMA but most grow out of it by the time they’re five years old (NHS, 2016a).
Symptoms of the allergy (see above) might show up straight after a feed or they may be delayed – immediate and delayed CMA. Occasionally, CMA can cause a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis (see symptoms above), which is a medical emergency – call 999.
Babies typically develop CMA when they first consume cows’ milk in their diet, either in formula or when they start eating solids (NHS, 2016a). CMA can also, occasionally, affect exclusively breastfed babies as cows’ milk from mum’s diet can pass to their baby (NHS, 2016a). If your baby does have a CMA, you can get prescription formulas that don’t contain cow’s milk.
Mums who exclusively breastfeed a baby who is allergic to cow’s milk will be advised to exclude dairy products from their diets (NHS, 2016a). A dairy-free diet can seem overwhelming but your GP can refer you to a dietician who will make sure you don’t miss out on eating vital nutrients (CMA, 2018).
Allergies to nuts, nut products and some seeds affect 1% to 2% of people.
Your child has a higher risk of developing a peanut allergy if they already have an allergy, like eczema or a diagnosed food allergy (NHS, 2018). There’s also more chance if there’s a history of allergies in their immediate family, including asthma, eczema or hay fever (NHS 2018). If you’re concerned about a potential allergic reaction, it’s worth talking to your GP or health visitor. They might be able to offer advice or reassurance.
If your child does have a nut allergy, avoid giving them food that contains peanuts, including peanut butter and peanut oil. Also, it’s important to carefully read food labels before giving them any snacks (NHS, 2018). Pre-packed food often has a list of ingredients with possible allergens written in bold, italic or coloured type to make the ingredients easier to spot (Food Standards Agency, 2018).
While lots of children outgrow allergies to milk or eggs, a peanut allergy tends to persist - only one in five children will grow out of it (NHS, 2018).
How can I lower the chance of my child developing an allergy?
Breastfeeding your baby exclusively for the first six months will help to lower their risk of allergies (NHS, 2018). The advice from the World Health Organization is to not introduce solids before your baby is six months old (WHO, 2002). Allergy UK has a downloadable fact sheet about weaning your baby when you’re introducing foods that can be associated with allergies.
Allergic reaction – what’s next?
If you think your child has had an allergic reaction, see your GP. They can help to determine whether it’s likely to be an allergy or caused by another condition.
Your GP can offer advice and treatment to manage the allergy. If it’s severe or hard to tell what’s causing the reaction, they might refer you to an allergy specialist for testing or treatment advice.
When introducing your baby to solids it’s a good idea to introduce new foods slowly. Offer milk, eggs, wheat, nuts, seeds and fish separately and one at a time. That’ll mean you can spot potential reactions (NHS, 2018).
How to cope emotionally
Allergies can at times be worrying, frustrating, stressful and restrictive.
"While it can be tough for parents and little ones alike, it’s good to remember most allergies are mild and they can be managed."
Food manufacturers are getting better at catering for people with food allergies, so there’s more choice of dairy-free, lactose-free or nut-free foods. On your doctor’s advice, your baby might be prescribed different types of baby formula milk if they have allergies to a certain type of milk (NHS, 2016d).
Talk to your GP if you’re concerned about your child’s health or think they may have an allergy or food intolerance. There is information and support available if you need it (see below).
This page was last reviewed in October 2018.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
CMA. (2018) Breastfeeding and CMA. Available at: http://www.cowsmilkallergy.co.uk/What-Can-I-do/Breastfeeding---CMA/ [Accessed 8th October 2018].
Food Standards Agency. (2018) Food allergy and intolerance. Available at: https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/food-allergy-and-intolerance [Accessed 8th October 2018].
Healthline. (2018) Why is there mucus in my baby’s poop? Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/mucus-in-baby-poop [Accessed 8th October 2018].
NHS. (2016a) What should I do if I think my baby is allergic or intolerant to cows milk? Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/childrens-health/what-should… [Accessed 8th October 2018].
NHS. (2016b) Food Intolerance. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/food-intolerance/ [Accessed 8th October 2018].
NHS. (2016c) Anaphylaxis. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/anaphylaxis/ [Accessed 8th October 2018].
NHS. (2016d) Types of formula milk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/types-of-infant-formul… [Accessed 8th October 2018].
NHS. (2018) Food allergies in babies and children. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/food-allergies-in-chil… [Accessed 8th October 2018].
WHO. (2002) Global strategy on infant and young child feeding. World Health Organisation. Available at: http://apps.who.int/gb/archive/pdf_files/WHA55/ea5515.pdf [Accessed 8th October 2018].