10 Facts You Need to Know About Food Allergies

We love food. Food allergies? Not so much. Allergies to food can be scary and should be taken seriously. An estimated 15 million people in the U.S. have at least one food allergy, and it’s even worse for kids: Approximately one out of every 13 children is allergic to some food -- typically milk, eggs or soy. Each year food allergies account for 200,000 visits to the emergency room, and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), among children food allergies are responsible for more than 300,000 ambulatory care visits. Here are 10 surprising truths about food allergies that you need to know.

1. Eight Foods Cause the Most Allergies

It’s not nice to point fingers, but just eight foods -- milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, fish, shellfish, tree nuts and wheat -- are to blame for about 90 percent of all food allergies. Another common allergen is sesame. And food allergies don’t play favorites either; adults and children and all races and ethnicities are at risk. “People can be allergic to just about anything, and we’re seeing an increasing number of adult-onset allergies, particularly to shellfish and nuts,” says food allergy researcher Ruchi Gupta, adding that any allergy can be potentially life threatening.

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2. Food Allergies Are On the Rise

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About 15 million Americans and more than 17 million Europeans have a food allergy, and this number is on the rise. According to a study conducted in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of U.S. children with food allergies increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 with no clear cause. The good news is that while food allergies are more common in children versus adults, a majority of affected children will “outgrow” their allergies with age.

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3. Allergies Differ From Intolerances

Food allergies involve the immune system, while food intolerances are generally digestive system responses. “The general consumer needs to understand the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance,” says Roger Clemens, former president of the Institute of Food Technologists. “Consumers often think that any adverse reaction is an allergy, but that is not the case. The serious nature of allergies cannot be overstated.” Symptoms of an allergic reaction include rash or hives, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, wheezing, trouble swallowing, swelling of tongue and lips and a weak pulse. By contrast, reactions to a food intolerance include stomach pain, diarrhea, heartburn, headache and bloating.

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4. Allergy Tests Are Not Foolproof

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A positive skin or blood test does not necessarily mean a patient will have an allergic reaction, according to Dr. James Sublett, an allergist in Louisville, Kentucky. Sublett says he often does “challenge testing,” giving his patients foods to which they are supposedly allergic. Sublett adds, “They often show no reaction. That’s why it’s important to see a certified allergist to confirm and diagnose a potentially serious problem.” Another part of your diagnostic testing may include a trial elimination diet.

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5. More People Are Allergic to Peanuts

The growing number of both children and adults suffering from peanut allergy is mystifying scientists. Research shows that the number of children living with peanut allergy appears to have tripled between 1997 and 2008, but the exact cause is unknown. One theory is the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests “clean living” and the use of medications to treat infections may leave our immune systems more susceptible to attacking food proteins. Another theory specific to peanuts is that the method of dry-roasting rather than boiling peanuts may make them more likely to cause an allergy. The good news is about 20 percent of kids with peanut allergies will outgrow them. It’s also important to note that a peanut allergy does not necessarily mean you’re allergic to tree nuts like pistachios, almonds and walnuts.

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6. Kids Can Outgrow Food Allergies

There’s hope for the millions of kids who suffer from food allergies. A recent survey of almost 40,000 children nationwide found that nearly 27 percent outgrew their allergies at about age five. Food allergy researcher Ruchi Gupta, M.D., M.P.H., conducted the survey and published the results in the June 2011 issue of Pediatrics. Forty percent of those surveyed had experienced a severe reaction, Gupta said. Among her findings, the earlier a child’s first reaction to a specific food, the more likely he is to outgrow the allergy. Gupta also found that boys were more likely to outgrow their allergies than girls.

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7. Epinephrine Beats Antihistamines

Anaphylaxis, the deadliest allergic reaction, occurs in nearly one in 50 Americans, according to a 2013 study by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Yet despite that high number, only 11 percent of sufferers used epinephrine, the study concluded. “Epinephrine is the treatment of choice for anaphylaxis, yet people often use an antihistamine first,” says Dr. Michael Pistiner, a pediatric allergist in Boston. According to Dr. Pistiner, severe allergic reactions are often not identified and treated right away. “The longer you wait to treat anaphylaxis, the more it can progress and the more dangerous it becomes,” adds Pistiner.

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8. Secondary Reactions Occur Often

Many people assume once they use the epinephrine auto-injector and begin to feel better that the allergic episode is over and no additional medical treatment is needed, but that could be a deadly mistake, according to Dr. Jun Lu, an allergist in Stockton, California. “There is a delayed response that can happen hours after the initial episode, which can often be life threatening, especially if the patient does not have additional epinephrine auto-injectors. It is wrong to think that after the initial episode the situation is all clear.” People with food allergies should always carry more than one epinephrine auto-injector because the effects can wear off after just a few minutes. A second dose may also be necessary in case the person does not respond immediately.

9. Restaurants Cater to Food-Allergy Sufferers

Restaurants are becoming ever more aware of food allergies -- educating their employees and using different cooking techniques -- for those with allergies or gluten intolerance. “Restaurants are taking this very seriously, to the point, for example, that they use different bins to fry fish, poultry and beef to avoid the risk of cross-contamination,” says Roger Clemens, former president of the Institute for Food Technologists. Several websites list the most allergy-friendly restaurant chains. So they can help you find the best dish for your needs, make sure to alert your waiter of any allergies.

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10. You Are Intolerant -- Not Allergic -- to Gluten

Many people claim to be allergic to gluten, but that is a food sensitivity rather than an allergy, according to Mike Spigler, vice president of education at Food Allergy Research and Education. Celiac disease, which is activated by gluten, is a genetic autoimmune disease that harms the small intestine, making it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. People with gluten sensitivity have difficulty digesting gluten and can suffer from celiac disease. By contrast, a food allergy is the result of a body’s overreaction to a protein within a food. While celiac disease is not life threatening, it can cause serious problems without treatment.

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What Do YOU Think?

Do you or your children suffer from food allergies? Have you had your diagnosis confirmed with a certified allergist, and do you have the appropriate treatment on hand? Let us know in the comment section below -- we’d love to hear from you.

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