Written and peer-reviewed by physicians—but use at your own risk. Read our disclaimer.

banner image


Trusted medical answers—in seconds.

Get access to 1,000+ medical articles with instant search
and clinical tools.

Try free for 5 days

Food allergies

Last updated: February 3, 2020


Food allergies are hypersensitivity reactions to allergens contained in food. They are the most common cause of anaphylaxis-related emergency admissions. Young children are commonly affected, usually beginning in the first two years of life. IgE-mediated reactions are the most common type and have an onset within minutes after ingestion. Clinical features include urticaria, angioedema, wheezing, rhinitis, and abdominal pain. Food intolerance on the other hand does not result in an immune reaction and usually only causes abdominal discomfort. A thorough patient history followed by a skin prick test or radioallergosorbent test (RAST) usually confirm the suspected allergen. Management includes desensitization, avoidance of triggers, treatment of symptoms, and, in the event of anaphylaxis, administration of epinephrine.


  • Most common cause of anaphylaxis-related emergency admissions
  • 5% of adults, 8% of children
  • Sex: > in children; > in adults
  • Age of onset: first and second year of life


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


  • Hypersensitivity reaction against select ingredients in food
  • The most common food allergens are cow's milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts , seafood (e.g., shellfish, fish), soy, wheat, fruits (e.g., kiwi)



  • Commonly IgE-mediated: Type I hypersensitivity reaction (immediate onset; within minutes to 2 hours of ingestion)
  • Mixed IgE/non-IgE-mediated and non-IgE-mediated reactions are also possible (delayed onset; hours to days after ingestion)


Clinical features

Non-IgE or mixed reactions are typically limited to the skin and the gastrointestinal tract.

Respiratory manifestations can be fatal!



  • Patient history: determine type of food, time and amount of ingestion, and the type of reaction
  • Suspected IgE-mediated reaction
  • If above tests are inconclusive or suspected food is not a common allergen
    • Elimination diet
    • Oral food challenge: the effect of potential allergens on the mucous membranes is tested (the patient is given different foods that contain potential allergens to chew but not swallow in increasing doses over a fixed period of time). May be implemented after a positive elimination diet.


Differential diagnoses

Infantile colic

  • Etiology
    • Unknown
    • Gastrointestinal (e.g., overfeeding or underfeeding, aerophagia, cow's milk intolerance), biologic (e.g., increased serotonin levels, tobacco exposure, dysfunctional motor regulation related to immaturity), and psychosocial (e.g., exposure to stress) factors are suspected
  • Clinical features
    • Healthy and thriving infant
    • Paroxysmal episodes of loud and high pitched crying
    • Hypertonia (e.g., clenched fists) during episodes
    • Infant is not easily consoled
  • Diagnosis: crying that lasts ≥ 3 hours per day, ≥ 3 days per week, for ≥ 3 weeks in an otherwise healthy infant <3 months
  • Treatment
    • Reassurance
    • Trial of various feeding and soothing techniques

Intolerance reactions

If blood appears in stools, further examination is necessary, as it is likely that a more serious condition (e.g., intussusception) is involved!


The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.






  1. Mustafa SS, Kaliner MA. Anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis. New York, NY: WebMD. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/135065. Updated: February 22, 2017. Accessed: March 9, 2017.
  2. Sicherer SH, Sampson HA. Food allergy: epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2014; 133 (2): p.291-307. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2013.11.020 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  3. Sicherer SH, Kaliner MA. Food Allergies. Food Allergies. New York, NY: WebMD. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/135959. Updated: May 31, 2016. Accessed: August 16, 2017.
  4. Burks W, Sicherer SH, TePas E. Clinical Manifestations of Food Allergy: An Overview. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/clinical-manifestations-of-food-allergy-an-overview.Last updated: October 23, 2015. Accessed: August 16, 2017.
  5. Sicherer SH, Wood RA TePas E. Oral Food Challenges for Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergies. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/oral-food-challenges-for-diagnosis-and-management-of-food-allergies.Last updated: August 4, 2017. Accessed: August 17, 2017.
  6. Lee Turner T, Palamountain S, Augustyn M, Torchia MM. Infantile Colic: Clinical Features and Diagnosis. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/infantile-colic-clinical-features-and-diagnosis.Last updated: July 17, 2017. Accessed: August 18, 2017.
  7. Lee Turner T, Palamountain S, Augustyn M, Torchia MM. Infantile Colic: Management and Outcome. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/infantile-colic-management-and-outcome.Last updated: July 17, 2017. Accessed: August 18, 2017.
  8. Chad Z . Allergies in children. Paediatr Child Health. 2001; 6 (8): p.555-566.