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Kids and food allergies: What to look out for

Worried your child might have a food allergy? Symptoms are often confused with food sensitivity. Here’s how to tell the difference.

A third of South Africans will experience allergies during their life. About 40% are children, according to the Allergy Foundation SA. But only 2.5% of allergies are to food, and some people will experience food allergies only during childhood and outgrow them.

Yes, there are news headlines about fatal reactions to food, like Jess Prinsloo (24), who passed away in January this year due to anaphylaxis after she stirred her tea with a spoon that had come into contact with milk (she had had an acute dairy allergy since childhood). Tragedies like this are hugely worrying for parents of a child with allergies, so it’s helpful to know what you’re dealing with. 

What’s the problem?  

A food allergy is your body’s immune system overreacting to a particular food, treating it as an ‘invader’ and fighting it. Reactions can range from mild rashes and swelling to anaphylaxis (a severe reaction that includes difficulty breathing and vomiting). Although life-threatening, this extreme allergic reaction can be managed with immediate emergency medication, like epinephrine, and preventative measures through education about the allergy.  

Also read: How to manage your allergies

Is it a food allergy?  

Here’s the catch: any food can cause allergies but that doesn’t mean that every food will. Common triggers in children are eggs, milk, fish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. 

Symptoms include swelling of the lips or tongue, itchiness inside the mouth, skin rash, crampy tummy, vomiting, diarrhoea, itchy watery eyes and nose, and a tight chest, says Dr Shaunagh Emanuel, an allergy doctor in Cape Town. It’s important to note that these are also common symptoms of other conditions: mild stomach pain could also be an immature digestive system or irritable gut; a runny nose could be a dust-mite allergy.  

“Many children will have one or more of these symptoms but won’t develop a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction,” she explains, noting that once children take an antihistamine (tablet or syrup), the symptoms usually disappear.

As a rule of thumb, “Someone with a true food allergy will have such a dramatic and quick onset of symptoms immediately after eating a particular food that there’s no doubt they’re allergic. Food allergy is not something that happens over days or weeks.” 

Get tested 

It’s crucial to get tested for a suspected food allergy, to confirm and grade its severity. Dr Emanuel cautions against online testing: “You send off your blood sample only to receive a long list of food items you’re supposedly allergic to,” she says. “If you’re tolerating a food when you eat it, you’re not allergic to it. You may be sensitised to that food, but it’s not a true allergy and you shouldn’t cut the food from your diet.”  

Many children suffer from malnutrition because parents keep them away from certain food groups, such as proteins or dairy, thinking they might be allergic. Instead of guessing, have your kids tested for the specific food you suspect is the trigger.  

Managing food allergies 

True food allergies can range from mild to life-threatening and the food must be avoided. Study food labels and write an action plan for your child’s caregivers, crèche or school. This plan should include your child’s photo, medical info and where to access their emergency medication, such as an adrenaline injector or EpiPen. Most kids will never need this, but having a plan could save their life.  

Where to get help  

Use these resources to educate yourself about food allergies: 

  • Start with your GP or local government clinic for allergy testing (skin prick or blood test).  
  • Find a local allergy professional on It’s also the go-to resource for all food-allergy information, including recipes.  
  • For advice on living with food allergies and school action plans, visit 

Words by: Silke Colquhoun.
Photograph: Pexels

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