The Mysterious Rise of Food Allergies in Kids

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Food allergies can occur or disappear at any age, and the allergy may become more severe with multiple exposures. Eight foods cause 90 percent of allergic reactions:

If you’ve noticed that more kids seem to have food allergies these days, you’re right. Food allergies in children have risen by 50 percent since the 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s one in every 13 American children under age 18.

But why? The reasons for this dramatic increase remain clouded in mystery. Theories vary, from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foods, to decreased exposure to natural living environments such as farms.

Pediatrician Paul Weber, MD, from The Pediatric Group in Piqua, Ohio, emphasizes that these are simply theories and shouldn’t create alarm among parents. He says that multiple factors likely play a role.

Dr. Weber notes that genetics can influence an individual child’s likelihood of having a food allergy. “A child’s risk of having food allergies is higher if the child has a parent who suffers from any type of allergic disease. It’s even more so if both parents have allergies. On the other hand, just because one sibling has a food allergy, doesn’t mean the next child will.”

In children, eggs, milk and peanuts are the most common causes of food allergies.

Allergy conditions linked to food allergies include asthma, eczema and environmental allergies such as hay fever.

Joseph Allen, MD, at Family Medicine of Vandalia, Ohio, says the increase in childhood food allergies 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 half a dozen years ago,” Dr. Allen says. “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.”

Reactions to foods are common and may result from the body’s negative response to certain foods or from a true food allergy, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

The Mysterious Rise of Food Allergies in Kids - In Content

The most common sign of a food allergy is hives or welts. A more severe reaction is called anaphylaxis, which can be deadly without immediate action.

  • Milk
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Wheat
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish

In children, eggs, milk and peanuts are the most common causes of food allergies. Peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish usually cause the most severe reactions. Generally, by age 5, most children outgrow allergies to milk, soy and eggs. An allergy to peanuts, tree nuts, fish or shellfish may be life-long.

Managing Food Allergies

Dr. Weber recommends two main allergy tests to help make a diagnosis:

Skin test — Allergists use extracts of a suspected food and prick the skin with that extract to check for an allergic reaction.

Blood test — Any physician can order a blood test to look for the presence of antibodies to the suspected item.

“To make a diagnosis for a food allergy, we need to see positive symptoms (hives, swelling) after ingestion of a suspected food and a positive skin or blood test,” Dr. Weber says. “Both skin and blood tests are beneficial in making a diagnosis. Once a food allergy is diagnosed, the treatment of choice is to avoid the food.”

Dr. Allen encourages you to discuss food allergy concerns with your child’s physician, because there’s 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.

Doctors used to advise parents to hold off on giving babies milk, peanuts and other complex foods during their first year. A recent study called LEAP (Learning Early about Peanut Allergy), however, shows kids who get peanuts in the first year of life have fewer allergy problems than kids who are introduced to them later in life. The study sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases raises interesting questions about the timing of presenting certain foods to children.

“Introducing these foods earlier actually has a protective effect. Recommending early introduction is where we’re headed at this point in medicine,” Dr. Weber says. He adds that breastfeeding a baby for the first six months of life can have a protective effect against allergies, as well.

A High Cost

Food allergies are not just an uncomfortable inconvenience, says Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE). It’s estimated that every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency department, causing more than 200,000 ER visits each year. The economic cost of children’s food allergies is estimated at $25 billion per year.

Regardless of the reasons why food allergies are on the rise, leading organizations like the CDC and FARE are taking steps to manage the problem. The CDC released a comprehensive guide to assist schools with identifying allergies and supporting children who suffer from them. FARE is funding research on therapies that could strengthen the immune system in children.

In the meantime, Dr. Weber says children with food allergies can live normal lives. “There are lots of foods out there that are safe, and most kids don’t have multiple food allergies. The most important point is to find enjoyable, nutritious food to eat.

“The vast majority of children can easily avoid the food they’re allergic to. And the hope is that they’ll outgrow it.”

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