Symptoms of Food Allergies

By Katharine Paljug  @YourCareE
October 31, 2023
Food Allergy Symptoms

A food allergy is a malfunction in your immune system. Learn how to recognize and react to symptoms of food allergies. Here's what you should know.

A food allergy is a malfunction in your immune system. It occurs when your immune system reacts to a component, usually a protein, found in a specific food as if it is something unhealthy. The reaction can happen even if you have only a tiny amount of the food, sometimes even if it is too close to you. 

About 20 million Americans have food allergies. Rates of food allergies are on the rise. In the United States, the portion of children with food allergies has increased to about 6 percent. Another 6 percent of adults have food allergies as well.

Although you can be allergic to the same foods for your entire life, many children outgrow allergies as they get older. Adults can also develop allergies that were not present when they were younger.


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Common food allergies

While any type of food can be an allergen, the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) warns that nine foods are responsible for about 90 percent of all food allergies:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Tree nuts
  • Wheat

In some parts of the world, mustard seeds also trigger strong reactions. 

Many food allergies are related to non-food allergies. Someone with an allergy to ragweed, for example, may also react to melons and bananas because they pollinate at the same time and contain similar proteins. That is known as cross-reactivity. 

Because food allergies can range from mild and uncomfortable to severe and life-threatening, it is important to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction so you can seek medical help right away. 

Common symptoms of food allergies 

Different food allergies often cause similar symptoms, usually affecting your skin, digestive system, heart, and breathing.

Someone having an allergic reaction may develop hives or dry, red patches on their skin. They may vomit, have stomach cramps, develop diarrhea, or feel weak and dizzy. Some symptoms of food allergies resemble those of non-food allergies, such as watery eyes or an itchy, running nose. You may also notice swelling in your hands, face, and ears. 

More severe symptoms of food allergies include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Swelling of your tongue
  • Tightness in your throat or chest
  • A weak pulse

In the most dangerous cases, a person in the middle of an allergic reaction may collapse or go into anaphylaxis, a dangerous reaction that sends your body into shock and can impair breathing. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

How your child may describe an allergic reaction

Adults can often tell when they are having an allergic reaction, but children usually describe their symptoms in unexpected ways because they do not know what is happening.

If your child has a food allergy, he or she may describe a burning, itching, or thick feeling in his or her tongue or mouth after eating certain foods. Some children say that it feels as if something is stuck in their throat. Children may describe their lips or throats as tight and full or say that there is a sensation like bugs in their mouth or ears. 

You may also notice external signs, such as hives or swelling, or hear that your child’s voice has become slurred or squeaky. Infants may become fussy or have irregular, liquid bowel movements.

How to respond symptoms of food allergies

You can often treat mild allergic symptoms, such as swelling, watery eyes, or itchy skin, with over-the-counter antihistamines. The ACAAI cautions, however, that even someone who has experienced only mild symptoms in the past can suddenly have a more severe or even life-threatening reaction. 

In the case of a severe allergic reaction, such as trouble breathing or symptoms of shock, it is important to seek medical help immediately. If you or someone in your care experiences any allergic reaction to food, no matter how mild, speak to a healthcare professional as soon as possible. 

A doctor can advise you about removing the food to which you are allergic from your diet. Your doctor can also prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector in the case of anaphylaxis or other life-threatening symptoms.  


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October 31, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN