The Most Common Food Allergies in Kids

Girl eating a sandwich

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Food allergies are a growing problem for children everywhere. About 8% of children have food allergies, which amounts to roughly one in every 13 children. Although some allergies are milder than others, all food allergies carry the risk of anaphylaxis, which can lead to death if not treated promptly. More than 40% of children with food allergies end up visiting the emergency room at some point.

While the chances of a food allergy are more likely if a family member has one, it's tough to predict your child's allergies. That’s why it’s important to understand what the most common allergies are in kids, what symptoms to look for, and what to do if your child develops a food allergy.

What Are the Most Common Allergies in Kids?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), about six different foods cause 90% of allergies in children. The foods are dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, nuts, and tree nuts.

Nana Mireku, MD, pediatric allergist and medical director of AllergenIQ, explains that allergies to these six foods tend to occur early in life, usually before 24 months. Allergies to fish and shellfish are among the top adult allergens, but these allergies tend to present past the early childhood years.

There are no clear correlations between a specific food allergy and a set age when that allergy might develop, says Sanjeev Jain, MD, board-certified allergist and immunologist at Columbia Allergy. Additionally, he notes, allergies don’t manifest the first time your child tries a food.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of the most common allergies in kids.

Cow Milk

Dairy allergies are among the most common allergies in young children, partly because most young children are exposed to milk at an early age.

Purvi Parikh, MD, an immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, says that, of the most common food allergies in children, dairy and egg allergies are the most prevalent. According to the AAP, about two or three out of every 100 children under the age of three have a dairy milk allergy.

As the AAP notes, cow milk allergies might first present as digestive upset in a baby who is drinking cow milk-based formula or who is exposed to cow milk proteins through breast milk. These babies may vomit after feeding and may have excessive gassiness or colic symptoms. Babies may also have itchy skin or eczema symptoms. Hives or breathing problems may occur in some children as well.

Eggs

As Dr. Parikh notes, along with cow milk, egg allergies are one of the top allergies in young children. Most who are allergic to eggs, are allergic to egg whites, rather than egg yolks. But since it’s nearly impossible to eat an egg yolk that hasn’t been contaminated with egg whites, experts recommend that you stay away from eggs altogether if you are allergic.

Symptoms of egg allergy are similar to other general allergy symptoms and may involve hives, skin swelling, vomiting, and diarrhea. Shortness of breath and throat tightening may be involved; these are emergency symptoms and require a call to 911 or a trip to the emergency room.

Soy

Though somewhat less common than cow milk allergies, soy allergies in children involve some similar symptoms, including colic, fussiness, and digestive upset. Some babies who are allergic to soy have blood in their stool.

Parents who switch to soy-based formula after a suspected cow milk allergy sometimes find that their baby is also allergic to soy. In these cases, you should talk to your doctor about a specialized formula that is not soy or cow milk based. Sometimes, specialized formulas will simply have the cow milk proteins broken down, so they are no longer reactive. Many specialized formulas are made of hydrolyzed proteins or amino acids.

Wheat

Though somewhat less common than the most common allergies in kids (cow milk and eggs), children can develop allergies to wheat. This may happen when wheat is first introduced to infants, usually in the form of wheat-based baby cereal.

Other common wheat-containing foods that children eat include bread or pasta. It’s important to recognize that non-food products, like playdough and certain bath products, may contain wheat, and these should be kept from a child who is allergic to wheat.

Wheat allergy symptoms can include hives, itchy skin, sneezing, stuffy nose, and asthma-like symptoms. Like all food allergies, anaphylactic reactions can occur with wheat allergies. Some children may have a specific allergy to the gluten component of wheat products. This is called celiac disease, in which case ongoing exposure to gluten can cause damage to the digestive system and interfere with nutrient absorption.

Peanuts

Peanuts and tree nuts are often lumped together, but peanuts are legumes, like soybeans and peas. While peanut allergies are less common than dairy and egg allergies, about 2.5% of children have peanut allergies, and that number is growing.

Some peanut allergy symptoms may be mild and include itchy skin, hives, and digestive issues. But peanut and tree nut allergies can cause the most severe allergic reaction in children. Peanuts are more likely to cause anaphylaxis reactions in children than other common allergens.

Tree Nuts

Tree nuts include a large variety of nuts, including walnuts, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. Some children are allergic to a specific tree nut but not all tree nuts; other children are allergic to a few different tree nuts. Unless you know which specific tree nut your child is allergic to, it’s advised that they stay away from all of them.

Symptoms of tree nut allergies can include abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stuffy nose, itchy throat, and shortness of breath. Like peanuts, tree nuts can cause some of the most severe allergic reactions in children. Life-threatening anaphylaxis is more possible with tree nut allergies than other common childhood allergies.

What Are the Best Treatment Options for Food Allergies?

Confirmation of an allergy requires a doctor’s visit and formal diagnosis. Usually food allergies are diagnosed with a combination of blood tests, skin prick tests, recording of symptoms in a food diary, and possible food allergy challenges.

Once a food allergy is diagnosed, your child will need to strictly avoid that food, says Dr. Parikh. That means checking labels, asking about ingredients at restaurants, and understanding in what circumstances cross-contamination may occur. Besides strict avoidance, you will likely have to carry emergency epinephrine with you, says Dr. Parikh, often in the form of an EpiPen.

With new advances in medicine, there are now other ways of treating food allergies in children, says Dr. Mireku. “Current treatment options for food allergies are immunotherapy or desensitization procedures,” says Dr. Mireku. “These treatments are life-changing for food allergy families.”

As Dr. Mireku explains, food oral immunotherapy (OIT) involves a child eating a very small dose of the food they are allergic to, under the supervision of an allergist. Gradually, the dose is increased until a “maintenance dose” is reached. “Once they reach their maintenance dose, they need to continue their maintenance dose daily and continue annual follow-ups with their allergist,” says Dr. Mireku.

Food sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) involves small drops of liquids containing the allergenic food, held under the tongue, and swallowed, Dr. Mireku explains. “Patients may start slowly with a small number of drops and will be increased over time, to reach their maintenance concentration,” she says. Similar to OIT therapy, this treatment continues daily with regular follow-ups from your allergist.

In both oral immunotherapy (OIT) and food sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT), it is crucial to speak to your child's allergist and only perform these therapies under the supervision of a trained medical doctor.

How to Prevent Food Allergies in Kids

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent your child from developing a food allergy, Dr. Jian explains that there are promising results when you introduce an allergen early. This differs from previous recommendations that advised parents to wait on introducing the most serious and common allergens to their children, such as peanuts and eggs, says Dr. Jian.

Waiting to introduce common allergens until your child is older may backfire, and send the message to their body that the food is problematic. “As the immune system is developing, we want to intentionally introduce highly allergenic foods and continue to regularly expose the immune system to these proteins so that the immune system is trained to recognize the proteins as ‘friendly’ and not as a threat,” says Dr. Jian.

The AAP currently recommends introducing common allergens, like peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, wheat, and milk, at the same time you introduce other solid foods to your child. Usually, children start eating solid foods in the middle of their first year of life.

If your child has a moderate or severe egg or eczema allergy, please consult your pediatrician about a modified approach to introducing peanuts.

A Word from Verywell

If you suspect that your child has developed an allergy to something they ate, you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician or a pediatric allergist. Some allergic reactions are mild and can be managed at home, but some allergic reactions are very serious and require emergency medical attention. Symptoms that require emergency medical attention include trouble breathing, facial and body swelling, listlessness, vomiting, or loss of consciousness.

All of this is why it’s important that you address any suspected food allergy your child has with a healthcare provider so that you know which foods and food ingredients to avoid. Your doctor can also help you come up with a plan for how to tackle any emergency allergy symptoms, and will prescribe any emergency medication you need to have on hand.

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9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food Allergies. Updated June 8, 2020.

  2. Healthy Children website. Common Food Allergies. Updated August 27, 2020.

  3. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia website. Egg Allergies. Updated February 5, 2020.

  4. Hopkins Medicine. Food Allergies in Children. Updated December 2, 2006.

  5. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Wheat. Updated March 6, 2015.

  6. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Peanut. Updated March 14, 2019.

  7. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Tree Nut. Updated November 7, 2014.

  8. Cedars-Sinai website. Food Allergies in Children. Updated March 17, 2019.

  9. Healthy Children website. AAP Clinical Report Highlights Early Introduction of Peanut-based Foods to Prevent Allergies. Updated March 18, 2019.

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