If it seems as if way more kids have food allergies now, you're on target. The number of children diagnosed with food allergies has gone up 18 percent in the past 10 years, according to new numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics. Four percent of kids now have food allergies, or about 3 million children.
This means a lot more than just the hassle of bringing nut-free snacks to school. Food allergies land children in the hospital about 9,500 times a year. Perhaps as many as 150 people die each year from food-induced anaphylaxis, most of them teenagers and young adults. The only way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the food, which can be difficult. "What you're seeing is an increase in children with food allergy and no improvement in treatment or diagnostic options," says Anne Muñoz-Furlong, chief executive officer of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
No one knows exactly why food allergies are on the rise. But that grim situation could be changing soon. Options now being tested to make food allergies less dangerous include immunotherapy for peanut allergy, which is responsible for most of the deaths and is one that children don't outgrow. Children being given an oral immunotherapy to peanut, which works by gradually developing tolerance, have moved from being able to eat less than one peanut before having a reaction to eating 13 to 15. "Some children have completed the therapy and are now eating peanuts," says Wesley Burks, chief of allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center. But he says it will probably be three to five years before that treatment is tested and proved safe for children outside a laboratory.
In the meantime, here's advice from Burks and other experts on keeping children safe:
- Be alert to food allergies' very specific symptoms: hives; wheezing and other lower respiratory problems; and vomiting, nausea, or stomach cramps. Those symptoms show up within a minute to an hour of eating the suspect food.
- Even if symptoms go away, mention them to your doctor. Laboratory tests can determine if the problem is caused by a food allergy. Sometimes parents decide on their own to remove foods from children's diets before finding out if they're really allergic, to the point that the children are missing out on nutrients.
- If you know your child has a food allergy, be vigilant about reading labels, and always have rescue medication (an epinephrine pen) at hand. "You want to have a healthy respect for the disease," says Burks. "But you don't need to let it control your family's lives, either."