Babies are more likely to develop allergies if there's a history of eczema, asthma, hay fever or food allergies (known together as 'atopy') in the family.
In a few cases, foods can cause a very severe reaction (anaphylaxis) that can be life-threatening. If you think your child is having an allergic reaction to a food, seek medical advice urgently as symptoms can worsen rapidly. If breathing is affected, give the person their adrenaline autoinjector then call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
Introducing allergy foods
It's recommended that when your infant is ready, at around 6 months (but not before 4 months), introduce a variety of solid foods, starting with iron-rich foods, while continuing breastfeeding. Hydrolysed (partially and extensively) infant formula is not recommended for the prevention of allergies.
When you start introducing solids, introduce the foods that commonly cause allergies one at a time so that you can spot any reactions. Don’t delay introducing a food just because it’s considered a common allergy food. These foods include: milk, eggs, wheat, nuts, seeds, fish and shellfish. However, don't introduce any of these foods before 6 months.
There is evidence that infants should be given solid allergy foods including peanut butter, cooked egg and dairy and wheat products in the first year of life. This includes infants at high risk of allergy.
Don’t be tempted to experiment by cutting out a major food, such as milk, as this could lead to your child not getting the nutrients they need. Talk to your doctor, who may refer you to a registered dietitian.
Your child has a higher risk of developing a peanut allergy if they already have a known allergy (such as eczema or a diagnosed food allergy), or there's a history of allergy in their immediate family (such as asthma, eczema or hay fever).
There is evidence that having peanuts regularly before 12 months can reduce the risk of developing peanut allergy. If your child already has an egg allergy, another food allergy or severe eczema, talk to your doctor before you give peanuts or food containing peanuts to your child for the first time.
If you would like to eat peanuts or foods containing peanuts (such as peanut butter) while breastfeeding, you can do so unless you're allergic to them or your health professional advises you not to.
Avoid giving your child peanuts and foods containing peanuts before the age of 6 months. Foods containing peanuts include peanut butter, peanut (groundnut) oil and some snacks. Small children are at a higher risk of choking on small objects, so avoid giving whole peanuts or nuts to children aged under 5.
Read food labels carefully and avoid foods if you're not sure whether they contain peanuts.
Food contains additives for a variety of reasons, such as to preserve it, to help make it safe to eat for longer and to give colour or texture.
All food additives go through rigorous assessments for safety before they can be used. Food labelling must clearly show additives in the list of ingredients, including their name or number and their function, such as 'colouring' or 'preservative'.
A few people have adverse reactions to some food additives, but this is not a food allergy, it is a food intolerance. This means the reaction does not involve the body’s immune system. Symptoms of a food intolerance include headaches, bloating or mouth ulcers. These are likely to come on more slowly than the symptoms of a food allergy.
How will I know if my child has a food allergy?
Signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction can include:
- wheezing and shortness of breath
- itchy throat and tongue
- rash or itchy skin
- swollen lips and throat
- runny or blocked nose
- sore, red and itchy eyes
A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. This is very serious and can be fatal.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis may include:
- difficult or noisy breathing
- difficulty talking and/or hoarse voice
- a swollen tongue
- persistent dizziness or collapse
- swelling or tightness in the throat
- pale and floppy (young children)
- wheeze or persistent cough
- abdominal pain or vomiting
How are food allergies in children managed?
If you think your child has a food allergy, see your doctor. They will probably do a skin test or order a blood test to help identify what your child is allergic to.
Food allergy should be managed under the guidance of a clinical immunologist or allergy specialist. In most cases, your child must avoid the food they are allergic to. This means carefully reading food labels, taking care when eating out and avoiding cross contamination when preparing food. A doctor or dietitian should advise you to make sure your child is getting all the nutrients they need.
Your child or their carer should carry an adrenaline autoinjector and ASCIA Action Plan for Anaphylaxis with them at all times and know what to do when a reaction occurs.
For more information on food allergies, including setting up a personal action plan, go to www.allergy.org.au.
Most children outgrow food allergies in time. Peanut, tree nut, seed and seafood allergies are less likely to be outgrown your child may be allergic their whole life.
The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) recommends talking to your doctor or specialist about the specific testing available for a food allergy. ASCIA also recommends that immunotherapy for allergy foods should not yet be used for routine treatment of food allergy, although there is ongoing research in this area. For further information about ASCIA's recommendations, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.
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Last reviewed: June 2020