Food Allergies on the Rise for US Children

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The number of children with food allergies has increased 18% in the past ten years according to new research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, those seeking treatment at hospitals and clinics for food allergy related symptoms have tripled since 1993.

Researchers used information from four national databases to assess the current rate of food allergies in the United States. Reports were a combination of parent surveys and documents from healthcare providers.

The overall incidence of food allergies in the United States is low, around 3.9% of children, and study authors are not clear if the rise in the reports of food allergies reflects an actual increase in prevalence or if better awareness has led more people to seek treatment. “People are more aware of food allergies today, and that could have something to do with it,” said study author Amy Branum.

There was also an increase in the rates of parent-reported skin allergies, such as eczema, over the past decade. Approximately 8.9% of children experienced a skin allergic reaction in 2007, compared to 7.9% in 1997.

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Race seemed to be a factor, but not gender. Black children were about twice as likely as white children to have a peanut or milk allergy. Hispanic children have the lowest overall incidence of food allergies, but the greatest increase over the past 10 years. There were no significant differences in allergy rates between boys and girls.

There are eight foods that cause the majority of food allergies in the United States: peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, fish, seafood, wheat, and soy. Typical symptoms can range from mild, such as tingling sensation in the mouth and GI distress, to severe reactions requiring immediate treatment, including swelling of the tongue or throat and difficulty breathing. To test for allergic reaction, physicians order a test for immunoglobulin E, or IgE, antibodies in the blood.

Theories for the rise in allergic reactions to food range from “the hygiene hypothesis”, where over-sanitization of the environment has lead to immune system insufficiency in children. Another theory is the lower rate of breastfeeding in some demographic groups, which is thought to be protective against the development of food allergies.

Parents who suspect their child has a food allergy should talk with their pediatrician or primary care physician about the symptoms.

Results of the study will appear in the December issue of Pediatrics.

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