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How can I recognize the warning signs of an allergic reaction in my child?
Q: My 3-year-old son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy after he had a serious reaction to a peanut butter sandwich. Knowing that peanuts and peanut oil are hidden ingredients in many foods, I’m afraid that he might eat something that will trigger another reaction. How can you recognize the early signs of an allergic reaction in a young child, especially when they’re too young to explain the symptoms they’re feeling?
A: It’s very important to recognize whether your child might be having a serious allergic reaction, in order to give him the injected epinephrine and get him emergency medical treatment right away. The symptoms of a severe allergic reaction can occur within minutes or up to a couple hours, including reactions of the mouth and intestinal tract, skin, respiratory tract and circulatory system.

Sometimes it is hard to recognize the early signs of such a reaction in young children. They may not be able to explain what they’re feeling, or they may explain it in a way that adults don’t understand. When young children experience a food allergy, they often put their hands in their mouths, or pull at or scratch their tongues or neck. Their voice may change—it can become hoarse or squeaky or they might slur their words. You might notice swelling of the mouth and throat area, flushing or paleness of the face, hives, difficulty breathing, vomiting or diarrhea.

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network published a list of phrases that young children commonly use to descote the feeling of an allergic reaction. Here are some examples:

  • My tongue/mouth feels funny.

  • My tongue/mouth is hot/burning/tingling/itching.

  • Something’s poking my tongue.

  • My tongue/throat feels full/heavy/thick.

  • There’s something stuck in my throat.

  • There are bugs in my ears.
If you suspect that your child is having an allergic reaction, immediately follow your doctor’s instructions. For more information, visit the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network website, www.foodallergy.org.