Can You Tell if Your Child’s Food Allergy is Life-Threatening?


If you’ve just found out or believe your child has a food allergy, you’ve probably heard of the life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. This is a severe reaction that occurs when the body releases chemicals in response to a food it deems dangerous or invasive. You might worry about your child accidentally ingesting peanuts, a milk product or another allergen and being rushed to the emergency room in a life-threating situation. Of course you’re worried–you’re a parent.

Can Your Child’s Food Allergy Cause Anaphylaxis?

The truth is, every food allergy puts your child at risk for a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. There is no way to predict the severity of an allergic reaction, even based on past reactions.

If you think your child has a food allergy, it’s essential you consult with your healthcare provider, an allergist or immunologist as soon as possible. While symptoms of food allergies may seem mild, they can instantly worsen, potentially leading to life-threatening anaphylaxis.

The good news is that with the proper diagnosis, precautions and emergency action plans, your child’s food allergy does not have to be an anxiety-inducing worry. Most cases of anaphylaxis can be stopped with the proper emergency response. By learning more about your child’s food allergy and how to avoid a life-threatening emergency, as well as how to deal with anaphylactic reaction if it does occur, you will feel more confident and more in control as a parent.

Learn the Symptoms of Food Allergies

Food allergy symptoms appear within minutes up to a few hours of ingesting a food allergen. Symptoms are unpredictable and can worsen immediately, so they should always be taken seriously.

Mild to Moderate Symptoms

These are signs of a mild to moderate allergic reaction, which often serve as a first indication of a food allergy. However, these symptoms can quickly worsen into anaphylaxis:

  • Itchy red welts or hives on the skin

  • Redness of the face

  • Sneezing, coughing or respiratory issues

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Stomach disturbances that cause pain, diarrhea, gas and vomiting

Severe Reaction and Anaphylaxis Symptoms

The symptoms below may be signs of a life-threatening situation. Emergency care should be sought immediately if your child:

  • Has difficulty swallowing

  • Experiences a drop in blood pressure

  • Feels a sense of “impending doom”

  • Has chest pain

  • Loses consciousness

  • Has a weak pulse

Food Allergies are Never “Mild”

While some people may experience mild allergic reactions to a certain food, food allergies themselves should never be considered “mild.” What sets food allergies apart from other conditions, such as food intolerance, is the never-ending possibility of the allergic person going into anaphylaxis.

Other health conditions may cause reactions that mimic those of food allergies, but because they do not present the same life-threatening risk, experts do not consider these conditions to be “mild food allergies” either. The following conditions are often confused with food allergies:

  • Food intolerance is the body’s inability to fully digest certain foods. Often, symptoms cause discomfort and can mimic those of a food allergy, but food intolerance is not life-threatening.

  • Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, is not a food allergy. Those with this condition must avoid eating gluten products, because the body identifies them as a risk but instead attacks itself.  Celiac disease should be properly identified and treated by a professional healthcare provider as it carries its own set of risks.

Past Allergic Reactions Cannot Predict Future Reactions

Every food allergy has the potential to cause an anaphylactic reaction. There is no predictability in the severity of potential food allergy reactions, regardless of past history. For instance, if past allergic reactions have been only mild, serious reactions can still happen at any time with exposure to even the tiniest amount of a food allergen.

You should consider every food allergy to be potentially life-threatening, and the allergen should be avoided. Your healthcare provider can help you prepare an Anaphylaxis Action Plan that includes important emergency information and an epinephrine auto-injector for emergency administration of medication to stop a serious reaction.

The best way to feel confident that you are protecting your child from a potentially life-threatening allergy emergency is by learning more about the symptoms, causes and treatment of food allergies. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to protecting your child. To find out more about food allergies, read An Overview of Food Allergies for Parents in Need of Answers.