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Food allergies may affect nearly 6 million children in U.S., study estimates

June 20, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • A new survey suggests 8% of children in the U.S., or nearly 6 million, have a food allergy. Peanuts, milk and shellfish are the most common food allergens among children, the researchers report this week in Pediatrics.
A new survey suggests 8% of children in the U.S., or nearly 6 million, have… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

Food allergies might be more common than some previous research has suggested, with a new study estimating that about 8% of children, about 6 million in the U.S., have a food allergy. Not only is this estimate higher than some previous research has reported, the study found that reported allergic reactions are often severe and that many kids have more than one allergy.

The new estimate is helpful for physicians because researchers couldn’t previously pin down a number -- figures of between 2% and 8% came from studies that were too small or were limited in other ways. In the current study, led by researchers at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, parents of more than 38,000 children were surveyed about whether their child had been diagnosed with a food allergy and had one or more of a number of symptoms, including anaphylaxis; swelling of the lips, eyes or face and skin rashes or hives.

Further, of the children with confirmed (or probable) food allergies, about 39% had had severe reactions in the past, and 30% had more than one allergy. The results were published online in Pediatrics on Monday (the research was funded by the Food Allergy Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy group).

Among children with food allergies, the study found, these were the top three allergens:

--Peanuts (25% of food-allergic children)

--Milk (21%)

--Shellfish (17%)

Severe reactions, the authors found, were most common among children with tree nut (more than 50%) and fin fish (more than 40%) allergies. The reactions were more likely among 14- to 17-year-olds compared with 0- to 2-year-olds, and more likely in children with multiple food allergies.

In the discussion of their paper, the authors wrote:

“The lack of data on the severity of childhood food allergy has made it difficult to articulate best practices.” 

In their conclusion, they wrote: "These findings provide critical epidemiologic information to guide strategies for the prevention of food-induced reactions and for the diagnosis and management of childhood food allergies." 

KidsHealth, from the Nemours Foundation, has this to say about “growing out” of allergies:

“Most kids who are allergic to milk, eggs, wheat, or soy outgrow their allergies by the time they're 5 years old. But only about 20% of people with peanut allergy and about 10% of kids with tree nut allergy outgrow their allergy. Fish and shellfish allergies usually develop later in life, and people are unlikely to outgrow them.”

Not every food-allergy symptom means a food allergy is present. Read this before any self-diagnosis. And of course, consult with a doctor before cutting out major food groups. 

healthkey@tribune.com

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