Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Food Allergies on the Rise in US Children... maybe.

A new cross-sectional survey of data on food allergy among children published online November 16, 2009 in Pediatrics shows that the prevalence of self-reported food allergies in the U.S. increased by 18% from 1997 to 2007, and outpatient visits to medical facilities for treatment of food allergies nearly tripled from 1993 to 2006. The study was the first to make nationally representative trend estimates of food allergy prevalence and healthcare utilization in the U.S. It also took the unusual step of characterizing some food allergy characteristics according to race and ethnicity.The study found that increases in food allergy prevalence were found across gender, age, and race, and findings include:
  • Between 2003 and 2006, children were taken for an estimated average of 317,000 food allergy-related visits per year to emergency rooms and outpatient departments and doctors offices
  • Hospitalizations of children with diagnoses related to food allergy increased from an average of 2,600 discharges per year during the period of 1998 to 2000 to 9,500 discharges per year from 2004 to 2006
  • Black children were twice as likely as white children to test positive for peanut allergies on blood tests and were nearly twice as likely to have detectable signs of milk allergies.
  • Black children were four times as likely as white children to have detectable antibodies for shellfish. While not as likely to have food allergies as black children, Hispanic children were more likely to have food allergies than were white children.
But are allergies really on the rise?

According to previous reports, true food allergies are not as common as most people believe and only affect about 2% of children, although they are more common in younger children. And fortunately, most younger children will outgrow these food allergies by the time they are three years old.
More common than food allergies is food intolerance, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, spitting up, and skin rashes. An example of such a reaction occurs in children with lactose intolerance, which occurs because of a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which normally breaks down the sugar lactose. Children without this enzyme or who have a decreased amount of the enzyme, develop symptoms after drinking lactose containing food products, such as cow's milk. However, because this reaction does not involve the immune system, it is not a real food allergy.

One theory of interest suggests the recent rise could be related to a phenomenon known as the hygiene hypothesis, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "Because children in our culture are exposed to fewer germs than their bodies are used to dealing with, the immune system is deprived of the full-time germ-fighting job they have to do, and [immune systems] misidentify food as harmful" she says.
After identifying food as harmful, the body reacts by trying to fight the food—resulting in an allergic reaction with symptoms ranging from relatively benign ones, like hives, rashes and tingling in the mouth, to terrifying ones, like swelling in the throat, difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness.

However the study notes that "Several national health surveys indicate that food allergy prevalence and/or awareness has increased among US children in recent years."
And researcher Amy M. Branum, MSPH, of National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC adds "Reported food allergy is increasing among children of all ages, among boys and girls, and among children of different races/ethnicities, however, it cannot be determined how much of the increases in estimates are truly attributable to increases in clinical disease and how much are attributable to increased awareness by physicians, other health care providers, and parents."

So the reality is that while there may be some actual increase in allergic reactions to our children's food, the study suggests more of an increase in the general awareness and reporting of food allergies.

About Food Allergies:

Some food allergies result in immediate, severe and even life-threatening symptoms (such as severe peanut allergy), whereas others cause symptoms which may take longer to develop (for example, gluten allergy, also known as coeliac disease). They can result in immediate, severe and even life-threatening symptoms (such as severe peanut allergy), whereas others cause symptoms which may take longer to develop (for example, gluten allergy, also known as coeliac disease).
The diagnosis of a food allergy isn't always straightforward. Many food allergy symptoms can also be caused by a number of other conditions and it may take some time before the problem food is identified and your doctor can confirm that you have an allergy.

The only treatment for food allergy is not to eat the problem food. A registered dietitian can help you identify and remove a problem food from your diet and replace it with alternatives, to make sure you don't miss out on essential nutrients. Your dietitian can also explain what you need to look for on food labels and when eating out. Symptoms of mild food allergies, such as a rash or runny nose, may be treated with antihistamines. However, it's important that you only take medicines for your allergy on the advice of your doctor. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

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