There’s no denying that food allergies and sensitivities are being reported at a higher rate than in the past. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that food allergies in children have risen by about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.
Nowadays, one in thirteen kids in the United States has a food allergy with 90 percent of allergic reactions due to one of these eight foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. About 30 percent of children who have a food allergy are allergic to more than one food.
How Dangerous Are Food Allergies?
Food allergies are an extremely serious health threat. In fact, a food allergy sends someone to the emergency room every three minutes, and 200,000 people require emergency medical care for allergic reactions to food every year in the United States. Depending on the severity of the food allergy, epinephrine may be the only effective treatment. Furthermore, if an allergy leads to anaphylaxis, epinephrine is the only treatment and it must be administered within minutes to avoid death.
Can Adults Develop Food Allergies?
While most food allergies are discovered in children, at least 15 percent of food allergies are diagnosed for the first time in adults and half of adults with food allergies first showed symptoms after the age of 18. On the flip side, some food allergies can also be outgrown. Allergies to milk, egg, wheat and soy are often outgrown during childhood but allergies to tree nuts and fish are usually lifelong. One in five people with a peanut allergy will outgrow it over time. Making healthy eating choices is critical, even while at work.
What’s the Difference Between Food Allergies and Sensitivities?
To put it simply, a food allergy can be life threatening while a food sensitivity is uncomfortable but doesn’t pose permanent danger to one’s health. While exposure to a food allergy can lead to anaphylaxis, hives and swelling, a food sensitivity is more likely to cause an upset stomach or headache. Common culprits for a food sensitivity include dairy products, grains and beans. Also, unlike a food allergy, a food sensitivity doesn’t often cause an immediate reaction and larger quantities over hours or days are usually needed to see an effect.
Why Are Food Allergies and Sensitivities More Common Now?
There are multiple reasons why food allergies and sensitivities are on the rise. Here are a few of the more common theories:
- Hygiene Hypothesis – One of the possible reasons for more food allergies is that society is so obsessed with killing germs that children aren’t exposed to enough in early childhood to build their immune system. This theory is backed by the higher likelihood of developing a food allergy in a modernized country versus in less developed countries. Instead of protecting the body from actual germs, the immune system may attack a particular food simply because it has no other germs to attack and is, to put it plainly, looking for something to do.
- Lack of Exposure at an Early Age – Another reason that may contribute to the rise in food allergies is that children aren’t exposed to possible allergens at an early enough age. It’s falsely believed that by delaying the introduction of common allergens can lower the odds of developing a food allergy when the opposite is actually true. Despite a recommendation to not expose children to common food allergens until they were older, the rate of food allergies actually increased during this time period. Furthermore, a 2015 study called Learning Early About Peanut found that by introducing peanuts within the first year an infant had a lower chance of developing an allergy to peanuts by the age of five with only 3 percent becoming allergic compared to 17 percent of the children who weren’t exposed at an early age.
- Self-Diagnosis – While there has been a dramatic increase in the number of reports of food allergies, some people may simply assume that they have an allergy based on a negative experience with a certain food. For instance, someone may think that they’re allergic to dairy or gluten when in reality they have a food sensitivity, like being lactose intolerant or having a gluten sensitivity. The symptoms of both food allergies and food sensitivities often overlap, which makes it difficult to determine the cause without consulting your doctor.
- Changes in Diet – Another theory is that the amount of processed foods that are full of sugar, fat and excess calories have altered the natural bacteria found in people’s stomachs in industrialized countries. Doctors are hopeful that by encouraging people to eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables that they can reverse the food allergy trend.
While the exact cause for the rise in food allergies and sensitivities is still being debated, these theories may help guide you to finding your answer. As always, consult your doctor if you think you may have a food allergy or sensitivity so they can run the necessary tests to keep you safe and healthy.