May is Food Allergy Action Month!
Food allergies are very common, affecting around 15 million people in the U.S. While most people associate food allergies with kids, they occur in adults as well. About 4% of adults (or about 9 million people) have food allergies. It estimated that nearly 1 in 13 kids has a food allergy, which works out to be about two children in every classroom. About a third of kids are allergic to more than one food.
Food allergies cause a variety of reactions. Some of them are mild—a rash, sneezing, coughing or hives. Others are more serious and can be life threatening, like swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat. This can impair breathing, drop blood pressure, and lead to death if not treated immediately. About 40% of kids with food allergies have experienced a serious reaction like anaphylaxis. Teens/young adults are at highest risk of a fatal allergic reaction, often because they don’t carry emergency medicines (i.e. EpiPen) with them at all times.
Food allergies are different than food intolerances (i.e. lactose intolerance). Food allergies involve the body releasing chemicals and histamines as part of the immune system’s response to the food, something that doesn’t happen in food intolerances. It is estimated that 90% of food allergy reactions are caused by eight foods—wheat, soy, milk, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, and fish.
Food allergies can be a source of anxiety for kids, as well as social stress. For example, 1 in 3 children reports being bullied because of his/her food allergy. For kids who have more than one food allergy, it’s worse, with more than half reporting bullying. Kids with food allergies are often kept away from sleepovers, camps, and playdates with friends. Some parents even choose to homeschool their children who have food allergies. This stress is not isolated to the child—their mothers have significantly higher blood pressure and report significantly more stress than those whose children don’t have food allergies.
Allergies to milk, egg, wheat, and soy may be outgrown, but others persist for a lifetime, particularly peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish. There are new therapies in development to help prevent allergies and treat existing allergies, but most of these are not ready for general use at this time.