Learn Food Allergy Basics

More than 32 million people in the U.S. have a potentially life-threatening food allergy. That includes 5.6 million children. Learn the basics about food allergy below.

“One in 13 children suffer from food allergies, an incurable condition, and the largest cause of severe allergic reactions, sending a child to the emergency department every 3 minutes in the U.S.”

Brian P. Vickery, MD
Chief of Allergy and Immunology, Professor of Pediatric Immunology
Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

What is a food allergy?

A food allergy happens when your immune system reacts to a food protein because it has mistaken that protein as threat. Your body’s response is what we call an allergic reaction.

It is the protein in these foods that triggers an allergic reaction. The proteins found in peanuts or eggs are examples of common food allergens.

What are common food allergens in the U.S.?

A food allergy may occur in response to any food, and some people are allergic to more than one food. Food allergies may start in childhood or may not appear until you’re an adult.

There are 9 top food allergens in the U.S. These include:

  • Peanut
  • Eggs
  • Tree nut
  • Sesame
  • Soy
  • Cow’s milk
  • Shellfish
  • Fish
  • Wheat

All food allergies have one thing in common: they are potentially life-threatening. Always take food allergies—and the people who live with them—seriously.

What are the symptoms of a food allergy?

The first symptoms of a food allergy reaction usually appear within a few minutes after eating food. In some cases, however, food allergy reactions may occur a little later—up to 2 hours after eating a food.

Although most allergic reactions happen after eating a food, some people may have a reaction after touching a food.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe or even life-threatening.

You might see only one symptom, or you might see several symptoms at the same time.

If you have any concerns about your baby’s response to a new food, seek medical attention or call 911 right away.

Mild symptoms can include:

  • Rash or red itchy bumps (hives) around the mouth or face
  • Runny nose, sneezing
  • Mild upset stomach

In some people, a food allergy can trigger a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis (a·nuh·fuh·LAK·suhs). This can cause life-threatening symptoms that make it hard to breath.

Severe symptoms of anaphylaxis that you might see in a baby include:

  • Swelling of the lips, face, or tongue
  • Widespread hives over the body
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Wheezing
  • Repeated coughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Throat swelling
  • Skin color change to pale or blue
  • Sudden tiredness or lethargy
  • Seeming limp

Download this handout to help you remember the signs of a possible food allergy: Is My Baby Having a Food Allergy Reaction?