7 Signs Your Child Has a Food Sensitivity

Updated: Mar. 14, 2022

Here are some ways your child's body might be trying to communicate a food sensitivity—and why it's important to pay attention.

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Nausea and vomiting

It might look like something your child ate didn’t sit well, or it might be tempting to chalk his or her symptoms up to the latest stomach bug going around, but a food sensitivity is worth considering if you start to see a pattern. If every time your child has eggs for breakfast, or milk in his cereal he feels nauseated, for example, it’s worth mentioning to your pediatrician. Often times a food sensitivity will first reveal itself as an upset stomach, and parents might not see the correlation between the food and the symptom until the cycle has repeated itself a few times. If you do start to notice a pattern, try keeping a food diary and take notes about when and how often your child reacts to the food. Keep in mind that the first reactions to a food are often mild and will build in intensity with more exposure, so it’s important to bring it to your pediatrician’s attention sooner rather than later. Make sure you stop falling for these 13 dangerous myths about food allergies.

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Diarrhea and stomach pain

A common sign of a sensitivity or intolerance is digestive upset such as stomach pain and diarrhea. This can be mistaken for a number of illnesses, so parents should be aware of any patterns between food and stomach pain or bowel movements they witness in their children. One of the most common intolerances for infants is milk protein, and a common symptom is green, mucousy stool that might contain streaks of blood. (This comes from the irritation the protein causes within the intestinal lining, and will resolve once the offending protein is no longer in the infant’s system.) For nursing mothers, part of the resolution will include eliminating dairy products from their diets, as the protein excretes through breast milk. The list is extensive, but some common names for milk protein on ingredient lists are whey, casein, caseinates, lactulose, buttermilk, and artificial butter flavoring.

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Behavioral issues

Some children seem to show negative behavioral changes after consuming some foods that can cause sensitivity or intolerance such as gluten, food dyes, and dairy. If you notice that every time your child has a food colored with an artificial dye, such as red #40, he becomes irritable or aggressive, it is possible he’s reacting to an intolerance or sensitivity to the artificial color within his body. To test your theory, cut all artificial coloring from your child’s diet and replace it with foods using only food-based coloring agents. (This might not be as hard as you think. Many popular snack food brands have already begun to remove artificial colors from their ingredients, due to growing pressure from parent consumers to do so.) Don’t miss these sweet treats that are allergy-friendly for kids!

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Asthma attacks

A lesser known reaction to a food intolerance is asthma attacks in those with an intolerance or sensitivity to sulfites. This chemical can be naturally occurring or added to many processed foods, including chips, dried fruits, and baked goods. If you find that your child seems to become wheezy or begins coughing after enjoying their favorite processed snack, it might be time to take a closer look at the list of ingredients. Most asthma attacks begin with a tightness in the chest, followed by wheezing and shortness of breath with coughing. Any symptoms that present with trouble breathing should be immediately addressed with your child’s doctor, as sensitivities or intolerances can become life threatening. Common names for sulfites on ingredient lists are sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfate, potassium metabisulfate, and sodium sulfite. Here’s what you need to know if you think your child might have asthma.

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Food sensitivities can trigger headaches for some children, as a result of the inflammatory response in the body, and it’s important that parents be aware of food being a potential cause. Like every other symptom, if parents can spot a pattern between their child’s diet and the onset of a headache, it is crucial that they mention this to their health care provider. Any type of headache is worth mentioning to the doctor when it comes to children, as so many conditions can be the root cause.

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Food sensitivity vs. allergy

It can be difficult for parents to identify whether their infant or child suffers from a food allergy or a sensitivity. The one definitive way to know the difference is through blood or skin prick testing that measures a child’s immune response to the foods in question. A blood test will measure the level of IgE, an antibody that the body produces in excess when it is experiencing an allergic reaction. Results from a blood draw for food allergy are usually not available for one to two weeks, while skin prick test results are immediate. A skin test involves placing a serum of the offending food directly onto the skin and then pricking the skin. The area is then monitored for a reaction, such as swelling around the test site. False results are possible with blood or skin testing, so it is important that you discuss the results with your child’s doctor to determine if they are an accurate representation of your child’s experience with a certain food. Don’t miss these 20 bizarre things you had no clue you could be allergic to.

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Maintain awareness

Although many food sensitivities and allergies will present with symptoms early on in a child’s life, they can appear at any time. Parents should seek to maintain a level of heightened alertness when it comes to their child’s diet and any reactions that might occur from certain foods, as some food sensitivity symptoms can be serious or life threatening. When in doubt, parents should err on the side of caution and always discuss any food- or health-related concerns with their family physician, as sensitivities can increase with time and exposure, as well as the reactions the body produces in response. As a reminder, when wondering what the difference is between food sensitivity vs allergy, food sensitivities are generally present with gastrointestinal and behavioral issues, while food allergies generally affect not only the digestive tract but the entire body. Food allergy symptoms can include stomach pain, vomiting, itchy mouth, wheezing, trouble breathing, swelling of the mouth and throat, and skin irritations, just to name a few. Both conditions warrant treatment and diagnosis and should be discussed with a pediatrician in a timely matter if a parent suspects their child might be allergic or sensitive to a food. Here’s how these types of fruits and veggies can trigger oral allergy syndrome.