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Food Allergies on the Rise, Reason Remains Mystery

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites 50 percent rise since 1990s

DAYTON, Ohio (March 12, 2014) – Food allergies have risen 50 percent in children since the 1990s, according to recently released research by the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Allen HeadshotWhile research conducted by the CDC as well as some major universities has been able to quantify a leap in food allergy cases, none have been able to pinpoint the reason why the increase has taken place. Theories vary from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods, to decreased exposure to natural living environments such as farms. Those at the frontline of patient care – including Joseph Allen, MD, at Family Medicine of Vandalia – say the increase could simply be attributed to better awareness.

“If you went through and looked at the data in my charts, you would see a huge uptick in my diagnosis of food allergies today from when I first started practicing medicine five years ago,” said Dr. Allen. “I think we are better at finding food allergies and identifying them today than in years past and we may call things allergies that may not be true allergies, but the reaction a person is experiencing fits the bill.”

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), three to eight percent of children have reactions to some foods, but only one to two percent have true food allergies. One to two percent of adults have true food allergies. Reactions to foods are common, the AAFA said, and may result from the body’s negative response to certain foods or from a true food allergy. Any food can cause an allergic reaction, but only eight foods cause nine out of the 10 reactions. They are milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

The only way to know if a person is experiencing a true food allergy is to test it. Tests use extracts of the suspected foods and involve pricking the skin with that extract. An allergy is identified if the skin shows an allergic reaction. A blood test may be done to look for the presence of antibodies to the suspected item. However, many times, food allergies may simply be recorded by an elimination diet and patient experience, the AAFA said.

“I have patients who come in and tell me they have an allergy to a particular food and that they know that because once they stopped eating it their symptoms went away,” Dr. Allen said. “If they have found relief by staying away from a particular food then I record it as a possible allergy to that item.”

Food allergies are not just an uncomfortable inconvenience. It is estimated that every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency department – that is more than 200,000 emergency department visits per year. A reaction can range from a mild response such as an itchy mouth to anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially deadly reaction. The economic cost of children’s food allergies has been estimated at $25 billion per year.

Individuals can develop food allergies at any age. Dr. Allen encourages individuals to discuss food allergy concerns with their physician because there is always the potential that what is perceived as a food allergy could be an entirely different health concern. For instance, lactose intolerance – which can cause digestive issues – is often seen as an allergy issue when it’s really not. Rather, it’s the body’s inability to break down a particular sugar due to the absence of certain protein enzymes.

Regardless of the reasons why food allergies are on the rise, leading organizations like the CDC and the Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE) are taking steps to address it. The CDC just released a 108-page comprehensive guide to assist schools. The “Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs” documents procedures and policies regarding the disease to help assist caregivers on how to identify allergies and support children who suffer from them. And FARE is funding therapies that could strengthen immune systems in children.

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