Many children (and adults) love chocolate. But sometimes it does more harm than good: For instance, if your child regularly has a bad reaction to the sweet, you may be wondering if they have a chocolate intolerance.
A true chocolate allergy, though rare, is possible. Or your child may have a chocolate intolerance or sensitivity that causes digestive or behavior issues.
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Here are some signs to look out for that indicate your child is reacting to an ingredient in chocolate or an allergen cross-contaminant.
Visit your doctor if your child regularly has a bad reaction to chocolate or any other food, as they can help determine the source of the problem.
1. They Have Allergic Symptoms
A food allergy triggers an immune system response in the body, per the Mayo Clinic. It can cause symptoms like:
- Tingling of tongue, lips or face
- Swelling of hands, feet, mouth or tongue
- Rapid pulse
- Wheezing or trouble breathing
- Blurry vision
Chocolate allergies in toddlers (or people of any age, for that matter) aren't very common. In fact, an April 2019 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice concluded that self-reported chocolate or cocoa allergies are often inaccurate — instead, people are allergic to an ingredient in the chocolate.
And indeed, other common components of a chocolate bar — like peanuts, tree nuts, cow's milk and soy — are among the most common food allergens, and thus may be the real culprit behind your child's symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Milk and soy allergies in particular can be seen in infants and young children, per Stanford Children's Health. Additional symptoms include:
- Bloody stool
- Poor growth
Fix it: If your child has an allergic reaction to chocolate, it's best for them to avoid eating the treat altogether. Visit your doctor to help determine the cause of the allergic reaction — like nuts, milk or soy — so they can steer clear of the trigger food, per the Mayo Clinic.
Your doctor may run a blood test or do skin testing, which involves pricking the skin slightly to introduce the allergen underneath, then waiting to see if a local reaction (i.e. hives at the prick site) develops. Skin testing can be done in both infants and children, and it is not painful, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Some people can have an extreme allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, per the Mayo Clinic. This type of reaction can be life-threatening, as it can sometimes cause the throat to close up, making it difficult to breathe. Seek medical care immediately if your child has trouble breathing, a swollen throat, rapid pulse or feels dizzy or lightheaded after eating chocolate.
2. They Have Digestive Issues
If an allergy isn't to blame, it's possible your child has a chocolate intolerance or an inability to digest one of the ingredients in chocolate.
Here's the difference between an allergy and an intolerance: Food allergies trigger an immune system response, whereas a food intolerance occurs when the digestive system can't properly process a food, per Rush University Children's Hospital.
Here are some general chocolate intolerance symptoms to watch out for, according to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia:
- Stomach pain or cramps
- Gas or bloating
- Heartburn or acid reflux
- Headaches or migraines
- Skin rash or flushed skin
- Hives (although this can also be a sign of a food allergy)
Keep in mind that there are usually several ingredients in chocolate, and your child may have an intolerance to any one of them.
Take, for instance, lactose intolerance. This condition occurs when the small intestine does not make enough lactase to properly break down lactose, the sugar found in dairy products like — you guessed it — milk chocolate, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance in children include:
- Loose stools
- Watery diarrhea
- Skin rash and frequent colds
- Abdominal pain and cramping
Fix it: Visit your doctor to determine if lactose intolerance is behind your child's chocolate sensitivity. If it is, you can prevent digestive issues by limiting your child's intake of foods that contain dairy.
Milk chocolate and white chocolate contain the most milk, per the Cleveland Clinic, which can trigger your child's digestive symptoms if they have lactose intolerance.
3. They Act Restless or Jittery
Chocolate — particularly dark chocolate — is made from cocoa. Cocoa contains caffeine, a substance that stimulates your central nervous system to make you feel more awake and alert, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
And it's these stimulating effects that may have something to do with your child's cocoa intolerance, as children can be more sensitive to caffeine than adults, according to the University of Michigan Health.
Per the NLM, signs and symptoms of a chocolate sensitivity due to caffeine include:
- Fast heart rate
Fix it: Keep your child's caffeine intake to a minimum by opting for caffeine-free chocolate. You can also try an alternative to chocolate like carob, which is naturally caffeine-free, according to November 2016 research in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
- Mayo Clinic: "Food intolerance or food allergy?"
- Stanford Children's Health: "Food Allergies in Children"
- The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice: "Not so sweet: True chocolate and cocoa allergy"
- Rush University Children's Hospital: "Food Sensitivity in Children"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Dark, Milk or White – Which Chocolate Is Best for Your Heart?"
- Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Food Intolerance"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Caffeine"
- University of Michigan Health: "Parents, Perk Up to the Dangers of Caffeine for Teens"
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: "Functional Components of Carob Fruit: Linking the Chemical and Biological Space"
- Cleveland Clinic: "5 Can’t-Miss Signs That Your Child Is Lactose Intolerant"
- Mayo Clinic: "Food allergy"
- Mayo Clinic: "Allergy skin tests"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.