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, Khaled Girgis, 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.
- Allergic food reactions can cause swelling, hives, itchy mouth and throat. With food allergies, a reaction can be life-threatening, even if previous reactions have been mild.
Regardless of the symptoms, Dr. Girgis says, if you have any reaction, you should see an allergist for possible allergy testing and a definitive diagnosis.
“Patient’s detailed history provides a wealth of information to the treating allergist which can aid in determining the nature of a patient’s symptoms,” states Dr. Girgis.
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.
“If you have a reaction, it's very important to see your primary care provider or an allergist to understand the nature of your reaction and the necessary steps needed for an emergency as well as safe daily living,” describes Dr. Girgis.