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When to Call: Food Allergies

A food allergy is an abnormal reaction of the immune system to specific foods. Food intolerance is similar to a food allergy, and can share some of the same symptoms. Food allergy symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, but it can be difficult for a bystander or parent to know whether emergency medical attention is necessary.

A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency.

Seek emergency medical attention or call 9-1-1 if the following symptoms occur:

  • Trouble breathing, wheezing or deep coughing
  • Unusual paleness in the face, blue lips or blue earlobes
  • Rapid swelling of the throat or tongue
  • Feeling faint
  • Fast pulse
  • Signs of shock, including lightheadedness, confusion or disorientation, profuse sweating, nausea or vomiting

Children don’t always articulate these symptoms clearly. Instead, they may say things like, “My mouth feels funny,” “My tongue itches,” or “My throat feels thick.” If the person has an epi-pen for emergency treatment of a known food allergy, administer the epi-pen before you call for help, or have someone else inject it while you call 9-1-1.

If more serious symptoms like the ones listed above are not present, there may be a milder allergic reaction. If allergy symptoms are present, but are manageable or not overly bothersome, emergency attention may be unnecessary, but you should see a doctor to test for a possible food allergy.

Common food allergy symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea or cramping
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Itching
  • Hives or itchy welts on the skin
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue or mouth

Even a small amount of food can trigger an allergic reaction in severely allergic people. If you or your child has a known food allergy, your doctor can work with you on strategies for maintaining a balanced diet while avoiding foods that trigger a reaction.

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