The Scoop on Food

8 Signs Your Child May Be Experiencing a Serious Allergic Reaction

More kids are showing up in emergency rooms for anaphylaxis, a severe form of allergic reaction. Here's what anaphylaxis looks like, and how to keep your child safe.

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Rates of allergies have been on the rise among kids, for reasons that aren't fully understood. Now a new report suggests that cases of the most serious allergic reaction—the kind that can be fatal—may be climbing too.

According to a recent report from Blue Cross Blue Shield about children with allergies, the number of kids diagnosed as being "at risk" for an anaphylaxis episode jumped 104 percent from 2010-2016. During this time, ER visits due to anaphylaxis increased 150 percent. The report was based on data from more than nine million insured American children.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can cause swelling of the lips and trouble breathing. An epinephrine injector (such as the Epi-Pen) will help relieve dangerous symptoms in the moment, but kids should always be seen in the ER for additional observation and more treatment if needed, says Scott Sicherer, MD, a Professor of Pediatrics and researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide to Eating When Your Life Depends on It.

The red flags of anaphylaxis include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tightness of the throat
  • Hives
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Fainting

If your child does experience this kind of reaction, treat her immediately with an epinephrine injector if you have one and call 911.

In the Blue Cross Blue Shield report, nearly half of the anaphylaxis episodes were caused by exposure to specific foods, most commonly peanuts, tree nuts and seeds, milk, and eggs. Just as alarming: The rest of the episodes were triggered by unknown foods (or non-specific causes like insect bites). Researchers say this illustrates why parents of at-risk children should be prepared for a reaction at any time.

So what explains the spike in ER visits? One possible reason may simply be better awareness among families of what anaphylaxis looks like and how it should be treated. Allergies, especially food allergies, are also becoming more common. "There have been studies suggesting an increase in food allergy in general," says Sicherer. "One of our studies noted a tripling in peanut allergy in children from 1 in 250 in 1997 to 1 in 70 in 2008."

The average ER trip for anaphylaxis cost nearly $1500, with families paying an average of $373 out of pocket, according to the report, which notes that almost 1.7 million of insured kids (or 18 percent) have at least one allergy.

More mild symptoms of food allergies include sneezing, coughing, eczema, diarrhea, and an itchy mouth. If your child experiences any of these signs when eating speak to your pediatrician.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.