Are Food Allergies on the Rise?

My son lives on PB&J sandwiches and takes one to school practically every day, so I am not sure what we would do if his school became a “peanut-free” school.

Posted on | Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP | Comments ()

My son lives on PB&J sandwiches and takes one to school practically every day, so I am not sure what we would do if his school became a “peanut-free” school.

However, as a parent and emergency physician, I see and hear about more children with some type of food allergy. When I was younger and in school myself, I can’t recall one of my classmates having a serious and potentially deadly peanut allergy. Therefore, it begs that we ask some questions: Are food allergies on the rise? Or are we just hearing about them more frequently? Since May is Asthma and Allergy Awareness month, I felt this would be a good time to address these questions.

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) states that food allergies affect about 3% of the general population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 15 million people have food allergies, accounting for over 300,000 visits to doctors in offices and ERs around the country.

Allergies, in general, are an overreaction of our immune system. With food allergies, our immune system mistakes food proteins as a foreign invading germs, causing hives, rash, even trouble breathing and potentially deadly low blood pressure with shock and anaphylaxis. The most common food allergies are to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts), fish and shellfish, as well as soy and wheat. There is no cure for food allergies. You need to carefully manage your food allergies with prevention and vigilance.

This question of whether food allergies are indeed rising is somewhat debated in the medical community too, according to a respected well-known colleague of mine. Dr. Sami Bahna, M.D., Dr.PH., is a professor and the Chief of Allergy and Immunology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was the past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Dr. Bahna has lectured on this topic extensively and he feels that food allergies are, in fact, on the rise, in developed nations. There are several theories behind this. The first is something called the “hygienic hypothesis” which theorizes that in essence we are too clean! Our extensive use of antibiotics and antibacterial cleansers, as well as the chemical treatment of water and waste in the Western world, has eliminated many of our bacterial and parasitic threats. To this, he states, “Therefore, our idle immune system has taken to attacking foreign food proteins as if they are invading bacterial germs.”

Another contributing factor is our overuse of medications for GERD, which decrease stomach acid and can interfere with the full digestion of these food proteins. “Stomach acidity,” he says, “is required to adequately digest proteins and reduce their allergenicity.”

Lastly, in our global society, we are exposed to such a variety of foods from around the world. There is no such thing as seasonal food any longer. We can get any type of food at any time in our local grocery; often, these new and unusual food combinations cause allergic reactions.

It is our modern society that in essence is causing the rise in food allergies. Dr. Bahna states, “We have become victims to our own scientific and technological advances and successes!”

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, most children outgrow milk, egg, soy and wheat allergies. About 10-20% of kids will even outgrow peanut or tree nut allergies. However, here are some tips to remember if you have food allergies:

  • Always read food labels carefully and ask restaurants about ingredients to avoid foods that may cause a reaction
  • If you are not sure about ingredients, err on the side of caution and don’t eat it
  • Carry and know how to use injectable epinephrine as well as antihistamines for emergencies
  • Wear an ID bracelet describing your allergy
  • Teach close friends and family how to recognize signs of an allergic reaction, and how to use your medications and call 911 to get you to an ER immediately
  • After a reaction, even if symptoms have subsided, you should be checked out

Blog written by Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP
Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board certified emergency physician and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency...