A study released earlier this year by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open reveals that one in 10 U.S. adults – around 26 million people -- has a food allergy. Nearly half of those are allergic to more than one food. The number of adult allergy sufferers has more than doubled since the last large-scale study in 2014. We turned to allergy expert, Bruce Pfuetze, MD, a board-certified allergist with College Park Family Care Center and Overland Park Regional Medical Center to learn more about this alarming trend, how to know if you have food allergies and what to do.
What an allergy is… and what it isn’t
A surprising finding from this recent study was that nearly 20 percent of the adults surveyed thought they had a food allergy when in reality only half of those actually did. This tells us that many adults are having adverse reactions or discomfort caused by foods – allergy or not – that should be checked out by a physician.
It’s important to note that certain foods can cause discomfort even though you may not have an allergy. For example, those who have adverse reactions to dairy products or gluten or food additives may signal an intolerance, rather than an allergy.
- A food intolerance generally impacts your digestive system, causing symptoms such as bloating or diarrhea. With a food intolerance, you may also be able to eat small amounts of the food without issue.
- An allergy attacks your immune system and causes swelling, hives, itchy mouth and throat. With food allergies, a reaction can be life-threatening, even if previously, reactions have been mild.
Regardless of the symptoms, Dr. Pfuetze says, if you have any reaction, you should see your doctor for possible allergy testing and a definitive diagnosis.
“Eighty-five percent of what I'm going to learn about a patient comes from sitting and talking about what were their allergies when they were little: did they have colic, did they have trouble with food as a baby, and then on up to even as an adult,” said Dr. Pfuetze. “Seeing your physician is key for him or her to treat allergies appropriately.”
According to the study, the most common allergy-causing foods for adults were:
- tree nuts
- fin fish
One of the more alarming findings was that of the 26 million with allergies, nearly half of them developed at least one food allergy as an adult (after age 18). Additionally, given that the most prevalent allergies observed were shellfish and peanut, which prior pediatric work suggests are infrequently outgrown, the burden of food allergies across the nation is likely to increase.
Treat yourself like a kid
Parents of children with severe food allergies live in a state of “alert-ready,” particularly if the allergies are life-threatening. They are quick to visit the pediatrician to have an allergy diagnosis confirmed, and are armed with medicines in case of an allergic reaction. Yet adults all too often ignore their own potential food allergies, doctors say. In the study, only half of adults who reported food allergies had followed up with a physician for diagnosis. Only 24 percent of the allergy group said they owned an epinephrine auto-injector (epi-pen), while 38 percent of adults said they had been to the ER for a food allergy reaction.
“We see this all of the time – and especially with adults. They are so busy being the household’s ‘Chief Medical Officer,’ that they unintentionally forget about their own allergies, or becoming ill after eating or drinking,” Dr. Pfuetze said. “If you have a reaction, it's very important to see your primary care provider or an allergist to understand and get a diagnosis. The food that you have consumed could potentially be something you are allergic to, so partnering with your physician will help you develop a proper management plan.”
Besides, experts say, controlling a food allergy means eliminating that food. If you “self-diagnose” an allergy which may in fact be an intolerance or some other reaction, you may be unnecessarily removing foods from your diet.