Make an appointment with your GP if you think you or your child has a food allergy.
Diagnosing a food allergy in children
The GP will ask you some questions about the pattern of your child's symptoms, such as:
- How long did it take for the symptoms to start after exposure to the food?
- How long did they last?
- How severe were the symptoms?
- Is this the first time these symptoms have occurred? If not, how often have they occurred?
- What food was involved and how much of it did your child eat?
They'll also want to know about your child's medical history, such as:
- Do they have any other allergies?
- Is there a family history of allergies?
- Was your child breastfed or bottle-fed?
Your GP may also check your child's weight and size to make sure they're growing at the expected rate.
Referral to an allergy clinic
If your GP suspects a food allergy, they may refer you to an allergy clinic for testing.
The tests vary depending on the type of allergy:
- if the symptoms developed quickly, you'll probably need a skin-prick test or a blood test
- if the symptoms developed more slowly, you'll probably start a food elimination diet
During a skin-prick test, drops of extracts of foods are placed on the arm. Your skin is then pierced with a small lancet. This allows the allergen to come into contact with the cells of your immune system. The test is usually painless.
Sometimes, your doctor may perform the test using a sample of the food thought to cause a reaction.
Itching, redness and swelling usually indicates a positive reaction.
A skin-prick test does have a small chance of causing anaphylaxis. But testing will be carried out where there are facilities to deal with this. This will usually be at the hospital or an allergy clinic.
An alternative to a skin-prick test is a blood test. This measures the amount of allergic antibodies in the blood.
Food elimination diet
In a food elimination diet, the food thought to have caused the allergic reaction is withdrawn from your diet for 2 to 6 weeks. The food is then reintroduced.
If the symptoms go away when the food is withdrawn but return once you reintroduce the food this suggests a food allergy or intolerance.
Before starting the diet, you should be given advice from a dietitian on issues such as:
- the food and drinks you need to avoid
- how you should interpret food labels
- if any alternative sources of nutrition are needed
- how long the diet should last
Do not attempt a food elimination diet by yourself without discussing it with a health professional.
There are several tests available that claim to detect allergies, but should be avoided.
- vega testing – claims to detect allergies by measuring changes in your electromagnetic field
- kinesiology testing – claims to detect food allergies by studying your muscle responses
- hair analysis – claims to detect food allergies by taking a sample of your hair and running a series of tests on it
- alternative blood tests (leukocytotoxic tests) – claim to detect food allergies by checking for the "swelling of white blood cells"
Many alternative testing kits are expensive. The scientific principles they are allegedly based on are unproven. Independent reviews have found them to be unreliable. They should be avoided.
Questions to ask
If your child is diagnosed with a food allergy, or you're an adult who has just been diagnosed with a food allergy, you may want to ask questions such as:
- What type of allergy is it?
- What are the chances of having a severe allergic reaction?
- Will the allergy have an impact on other areas of my or my child's health, such as diet, nutrition and vaccination?
- Is my child likely to grow out of their allergy and, if so, when?
Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE