The advice here is primarily written for parents of a child with a food allergy. However, most of it is also relevant if you're an adult with a food allergy.
Your child's diet
There's currently no cure for food allergies, although many children will grow out of certain ones, such as allergies to milk and eggs.
The most effective way you can prevent symptoms is to remove the offending food – known as an allergen – from their diet.
However, it's important to check with your GP or the doctor in charge of your child's care first before eliminating certain foods.
Removing eggs or peanuts from a child's diet is not going to have much of an impact on their nutrition. Both of these foods are a good source of protein, but this can be replaced by alternative sources.
A milk allergy can have more of an impact, as milk is a good source of calcium, but there are many other ways you can incorporate calcium into your child's diet, such as with green leafy vegetables. Many foods and drinks are also fortified with extra calcium.
See your GP if you're concerned that your child's food allergy is affecting their growth and development.
It's very important to always check the ingredients list on any pre-packed food or drinks your child has.
Under EU law, any pre-packed food or drink sold in the UK must clearly state on the label if it contains any of these 14 ingredients that can cause an allergy:
- cereals that contain gluten – including wheat, rye, barley and oats
- crustaceans – including prawns, crabs and lobsters
- lupin (common garden plants) – seeds from some varieties are sometimes used to make flour
- molluscs – including mussels and oysters
- tree nuts – such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts
- sesame seeds
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites (preservatives used in some foods and drinks) – at levels above 10mg per kg or per litre
Also look out for voluntary "may contain" labels, such as "may contain traces of peanut". Manufacturers sometimes put this label on their products to warn consumers that they may have become accidentally contaminated with another food product during the production process.
Be careful with foods labelled as vegan. There is no legal definition of vegan, which means that foods labelled vegan are not always completely free of animal products. If you have food allergies to milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans or molluscs, read the ingredients list carefully on vegan food products. And look out for labels with warnings such as "may contain".
Read more detailed information about allergen labelling on the Food Standards Agency website.
Some non-food products contain allergy-causing food:
- some soaps and shampoos contain soy, egg and tree nut oil
- some pet foods contain milk and peanuts
- some glues and adhesive labels used on envelopes and stamps contain traces of wheat
Again, read the labels of any non-food products your child may come into close physical contact with.
Currently, unpackaged food does not need to be labelled in the same way as packaged food. The law requires food businesses to tell customers if their food products contain any of the 14 allergens, but this can be done in different ways.
A business could provide full allergen information on a menu, or they could have a sign advising customers to ask a member of staff for this information. This can make it more difficult to know what ingredients are in a particular food.
Examples of unpackaged food include food sold in:
- bakeries – including in-store bakeries in supermarkets
- salad bars
- "ready-to-eat" sandwich shops
- cafes, canteens and restaurants
- market stalls
If you or your child have a severe food allergy, you need to be careful when you eat out.
The following advice should help:
- let the staff know – when booking a table at a restaurant, make sure the staff know about any allergies. Ask for a firm guarantee that the specific food will not be in any of the dishes served. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) offers chef cards that provide information about allergies, which you can give to restaurant staff. As well as informing the chef and kitchen staff involved in cooking your food, let waiters and waitresses know so they understand the importance of avoiding cross-contamination when serving you.
- read the menu carefully and check for hidden ingredients – some food types contain other foods that can trigger allergies, which restaurant staff may have overlooked. Some desserts contain nuts (such as a cheesecake base) and some sauces contain wheat and peanuts.
- prepare for the worst – it's a good idea to prepare for any eventuality. Always take anti-allergy medicine with you when eating out, particularly an adrenalin auto-injector. Read more about using an auto-injector on our page about treating food allergies.
- use what's known as a taste test in older children – before your child begins to eat, ask them to take a tiny portion of the food and rub it against their lips to see if they experience a tingling or burning sensation. If they do, it suggests that the food will cause them to have an allergic reaction. However, the taste test does not work for all foods, so it should not be used as a substitute for the above advice.
Here's some more advice for parents:
- notify your child's school about their allergy – depending on how severe their allergy is, it may be necessary to give the staff at their school an emergency action plan in case of accidental exposure. Arrange for the school nurse or another staff member to hold a supply of adrenalin. Food allergy bracelets, which explain how other people can help your child in an emergency, are also available. Both the Anaphylaxis Campaign and Allergy UK provide advice on working with schools if your child has an allergy.
- let other parents know – young children may easily forget about their food allergy and accept food they should not have when visiting other children. Telling the parents of your child's friends about their allergy should help prevent this.
- educate your child – once your child is old enough to understand their allergy, it's important to give them clear, simple instructions about what foods to avoid and what they should do if they accidentally eat them.
Can food allergies be prevented?
It used to be thought that avoiding eating peanuts during pregnancy and when breastfeeding could help reduce the risk, but this theory has now been questioned.
There's some evidence that introducing peanuts early in life may reduce the risk of peanut allergy, but this may not apply to all children and requires confirmation from further studies.
It's important to follow the standard recommendations for pregnancy and breastfeeding, whether or not you have a family history of food allergies.