As many as one in every 12 kids in the United States may have a food allergy, according to a new study that appears to confirm that the condition is more widespread – and perhaps more dangerous – than previously thought.
“Understanding how common it is and how severe it is, that’s important to note,” said Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta, lead author of a study published in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics. “It’s very important that people understand that this is very real.”
Eight percent of children younger than 18 suffer from allergies – nearly 6 million kids in the U.S. – and nearly 40 percent of those youngsters had suffered a severe reaction to certain foods, according to Gupta, a pediatrician and researcher at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. More than 30 percent of those children were allergic to multiple foods, the study found.
The results are based on a nationally representative sample of almost 40,000 online surveys of parents of children younger than 18. They suggest that prevalence of food allergies might be twice as high as other large recent studies have found. Although the cases were reported by the parents themselves, the questions were developed specifically for food allergies and the responses were vetted by an expert panel, Gupta said.
“If anything, our numbers are quite conservative,” said Gupta. “I think this is a good, accurate estimate.”
Peanut allergies were most common, followed by allergies to milk and to shellfish.
Reports of food allergies that either had convincing serious symptoms or were confirmed by doctors were most common in children who were white, in middle-income families earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, and in those who lived in the south, the study found.
However, the odds of children having allergies were actually higher in black and Asian children – and far lower in families that made less than $50,000 a year. Even though they were more likely to have allergies, minority children were less likely to have their allergies diagnosed by doctors, the study found.
It will take more research to determine the cause of those disparities, but Gupta suspects that it might be because minority or low-income kids have less access to medical care, or because their parents might not be familiar with food allergies.
“Some parents, they don’t even tell me about a food allergy because they don’t think a doctor can do anything,” she said. “They may just stay away from certain foods.”
Severe reactions were more common in older children, but Gupta said that’s likely because younger kids’ environments are closely monitored by their parents.
Previous studies of allergy prevalence have ranged from 2 percent to 8 percent of kids, with large recent studies pegging the figure at about 4 percent.
Gupta’s findings underscore the need to seek prompt, accurate diagnoses of allergies, said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Parents sometimes assume that a child’s bad reaction to food is an allergy, but they need to make sure said Fineman, who practices as the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic.
The findings that allergies might be more common than previously thought don’t come as a surprise to Michele Richoux, whose 13-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts and shellfish, and can’t eat wheat because of celiac disease.
“I see it all the time,” said the Tampa, Fla., mother of two, whose child has gone from being the only kid in a class with food allergies, to being part of a small group.
She’s heard from skeptics who don’t believe allergies exist – or that they can be so serious.
“We haven’t found people have been mean, it’s just ignorance,” she said.
Richoux hopes that Gupta’s study and others will help boost knowledge about the potentially dangerous consequences of food allergies. Her daughter has had two serious reactions to food and once had to go to the hospital after a substitute teacher gave out Reese’s Peanut Butter cups as a reward in class.
“With more people having it, it’s sad, but it brings a higher level of awareness for everyone,” she said.
The new research was personal as well as professional for Gupta, the mother of a 9-year-old boy, Rohan, who loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – and a 4-year-old daughter, Riya, who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. She knows well the worries of monitoring a child’s diet.
“As a parent of a child with each, I totally feel it,” she said. “You live these two different lives with two different rules.”
She has plans for future studies that will explore the geographic distribution of food allergies in kids and also research focused on the most pressing issue: why food allergies appear to be increasing.
“I do agree with those skeptics who say that it is happening more, and I do believe that it is real,” she said. “The question is, what has changed in our environment and our lifestyles that is causing this?”