By Kristin Sidorov
Scary, challenging, and seemingly more commonplace than ever, food allergies pose serious health and safety risks for millions of American children. And while we’ve gotten used to seeing “peanut-free zones,” a recent study suggests that it might be time to take a closer look at allergy severity and what it means.
The new study reports that nearly 6 million children have some kind of allergy to foods. That’s roughly 1 in every 12 kids, and nearly double what health professionals had originally assumed. Of those, nearly 30 percent are allergic to multiple foods, and nearly 40 percent have severe or life-threatening reactions. Scary indeed. The most common allergies are to:
1. Peanuts (25%)
2. Milk (21%)
3. Shellfish (17%)
4. Tree nuts (13%)
These foods were followed closely by eggs, finned fish, strawberries, wheat, and soy. This new information raises important questions: Why are food allergies so widespread, and what can we do about it?
While many experts believe that food allergies are on the rise, they’re unable to pin down a specific cause. Many point to the “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that the hyper-cleanliness of our culture may have actually prevented kids from getting the exposure to germs they need in order to develop natural antibodies. Others think it might be due to the changes in food production, or the types of foods kids are fed (and not fed) early in life.
But without a clear reason, it’s hard to determine what the best course of treatment is; as a result, it’s become standard practice for kids to avoid the foods they’re allergic to, and for parents to carry an emergency stash of Benadryl and EpiPens at all times. Obviously that’s not ideal, and this approach can be a huge strain on a family, especially if the allergy is severe.
But hope isn’t out of reach, and doctors, parents, and researchers have begun to reevaluate how to handle the growing problem. Allergists are exploring new possibilities for treatment and prevention, including a theory that the very foods causing the allergies may be key to curing them. Small steps are being made, and knowing how prevalent the issue is helps us understand the scope of the problem and what needs to be done.
Today, awareness and prevention are key in keeping kids safe. Typically, allergies run in families, and many experts recommend breast-feeding as a way to protect children from developing them. If that isn’t an option, try using a low-allergen formula. And while there’s no cure yet, the good news is that many children with some of the most common types of food allergies (milk, eggs, wheat, soy) will eventually outgrow them as their bodies develop.
If you suspect your child might have a food allergy, talk to your doctor. Signs and symptoms usually include wheezing, coughing, hives or itching, tingling in the mouth, swelling, and dizziness. Be sure to check with your doctor about outgrowing allergies, too — if you want to try incorporating a food back into your child’s diet, it should always be done under the strict supervision of a health professional.