What to Do If Your Baby Is Having an Allergic Reaction

Baby refusing to eat food

Getty Images / SanyaSM

You’re enjoying a snack with your baby, who laughs and smiles as you feed her. Suddenly, her face contorts, and she begins to cry. She starts to grab her tongue. It looks like a rash is forming on her skin. You think your child may be having an allergic reaction.

“You have to check to see how bad of an allergic reaction is it? Is it just some dots around the mouth or is it attacking the airway?” asks Daniel Ganjian, MD, pediatrician, Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

A mild rash may call for removing the food item and administering medication. More serious symptoms require immediate medical attention. 

Jessica Prince, MD

Regardless of the situation, it is important to always stay calm.

— Jessica Prince, MD

“For allergic reactions that are only involving the skin—such as hives or itching, or other mild symptoms such as watery eyes and sneezing—a call or visit to the pediatrician will suffice,” advises Jessica Prince, MD, director of the pediatric emergency department at KIDZ Medical Services. “If your child is showing more severe symptoms such as throat itching, difficulty breathing, or changes in their voice, calling 911 would be most appropriate. Regardless of the situation, it is important to always stay calm."

The onset of an allergic reaction can be sudden, simple, or severe. As a parent, it’s important to know what steps to take in each situation. Ahead, we'll offer guidance on determining if your baby is having a mild or a severe allergic reaction, how to manage their symptoms, and items to keep on hand in case of an emergency.

Common Allergies Among Children

While there are a number of allergies a baby can experience, food allergies are typically the ones to watch out for.

“Generally, foods and medications can cause severe reactions such as anaphylaxis, whereas environmental allergies … don’t commonly cause severe reactions and … don’t commonly affect babies,” notes Tricia Lee, MD, pediatric allergist and immunologist, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and assistant professor of pediatrics, Emory University School of Medicine.

The top food allergens for kids are eggs, peanuts, and milk. Wheat, soy, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish are also high on the list for problem-causing foods. All of these items make up about 90% of the food allergies that kids experience.

However, the reactions can vary widely from child to child.

UPDATE: January 2023

As of January 1, 2023, labels on food products must list sesame as an allergen. This is a new requirement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But if you are allergic to sesame, you should still be cautious of the foods you are buying. The law doesn't require products on their way to stores or already on shelves by January 1st to list sesame on the label. Those foods also don't need to be removed or relabeled. Sesame joins eight other food allergens that already must be listed on labels: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.

Mild vs. Severe Allergic Reactions

Nearly 8% of children in the United States have food allergies, and about 3% of them are age two and under. Witnessing a child having an adverse reaction can be frightening, but it's important for parents to know what symptoms to watch for.

“It can be as small as a skin rash,” states Dr. Ganjian when asked about mild allergic reactions. “It can look like hives, and it can appear 30 to 60 minutes within having a new food.”

A young child may let you know something is wrong by pulling on their tongue or putting their fingers into their mouth. Symptoms can start suddenly, without any real warning.

Jessica Prince, MD

There is no way to predict how a person is going to reaction to an allergen.

— Jessica Prince, MD

“There is no way to predict how a person is going to react to an allergen. The first encounter can [range from]...just mild itching of the skin without any other symptom, to full anaphylaxis,” says Dr. Prince.

She adds that, in more severe cases, children might show symptoms such as "facial swelling, coughing, difficulty breathing, changes in the voice or feeling like their throat is closing up."

Severe reactions in babies are rare, but they do happen. In an observational study of over 500 infants up to 15 months old, 11% of them had severe allergic reactions to certain foods. Almost 30% of those had to be treated with epinephrine.

No matter the nature of the allergic response, it's important to stay calm and take action.

Managing a Child's Allergic Reaction

The symptoms your child experiences will help dictate what you do next.

“If the baby is having a mild allergic reaction such as hives, parents may give Benadryl, but should check with a pediatrician for dosing,” Dr. Lee notes, adding that you should rinse your baby's skin in case any traces of the allergen are present.

Following the initial reaction, parents may want to reach out to their child’s pediatrician or healthcare provider to discuss allergy testing and how to proceed.

“The current standard of care for a food allergy is to avoid the food and recheck testing yearly to determine if [the allergy has been] outgrown," Dr. Lee says, pointing out that milk, egg, wheat, and soy are common allergens that can be eventually overcome.

Medications like antihistamines and nasal steroids can also be beneficial, especially when dealing with environmental allergens. Experts say that when a child doesn’t respond well to other options, allergy shots can help.

For more serious allergic reactions, parents should dial 911 and seek emergency treatment immediately.

Can You Prevent Allergies?

Experts say there may be ways to reduce the severity of a child’s allergic reaction, or even prevent the allergen from causing them problems.

“There are ways to prevent food allergens. Between the ages of four to six months old, before the body has a chance to develop allergies, you [can] start exposing the child to the most common allergens in kids,” says Dr. Ganjian.

At this age, you can begin introducing fruits, vegetables, and cereal grains, one at a time. Once a baby has tolerated foods that are less likely to cause allergic reactions, parents can start to give eggs, peanuts, dairy, and other common food allergens. Of course, be sure to check with your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider first.

How to Stay Prepared

Because there’s no way to pinpoint exactly when or if a child may have an allergic reaction, experts have a few items they recommend that all parents keep at home and on the go, in case of emergency.

“Liquid Benadryl is good to have on hand, [as well as] hydrocortisone cream, and a pediatrician’s phone number,” Dr. Ganjian advises.

Once you aware of a child’s allergy, follow the advice of their pediatrician or healthcare provider. More serious allergies might require you to carry an EpiPen in the event of an anaphylactic reaction.

It can be hard to know what’s irritating your baby; do they just dislike the food, or is there truly a reaction that’s cause for concern? Either way, remaining calm, watching their symptoms, and calling for help if needed is alway the best course of action.

“As a Pediatric Emergency Room physician, I cannot stress to every parent how important it is to ‘follow your gut,'" says Dr. Prince. "If something about your child just does not feel right and you are concerned about an allergic reaction, call 911. It's always better to be safe than sorry, especially when minutes can make all the difference in the world."

A Word From Verywell

Every parent wants to keep their child safe. Understanding different types of allergic reactions, knowing what to look out for, and being prepared to give your child treatment is the best way to help. Your knowledge can be the key to keeping your baby’s allergic reactions controlled, and having a healthy, happy child.

8 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.
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  3. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Allergic to Sesame? Food Labels Now Must List Sesame as an Allergen.

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By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at www.lakeishafleming.com.