Understanding Food Allergies

We hear a lot about diverse kinds of food allergies, and whether or not they are getting more common as a whole. However, a new report published by the National Academy of Sciences says insufficient data or research methodologies make the number of people in the U.S. who actually have food allergies difficult to determine. Also, despite the general agreement among many health experts that food allergies have increased over time (and not just due to better methods of diagnosis), it remains difficult to confirm this with data.

 

According to an NPR report on this announcement, an important reason for the difficulty in getting these numbers is that it is challenging for parents to recognize and diagnose their children’s allergies. Food allergies and other conditions, like lactose intolerance, sometimes have “[overlapping] symptoms,” as explained by Dr. Virginia Stallings, a nutrition pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, for the NPR article. The difference is that food allergies can potentially be dangerous, while lactose intolerance, while very uncomfortable, does not pose an immediate danger to the person.

 

The more severe symptoms of food allergies - some examples given in the NPR report include difficulty breathing and swollen lips - should receive immediate medical attention. However, since symptoms are often milder than these, and since there is no single blood test or other procedure that precisely points out a food that a child can be allergic to, it is best to rely on expert advice to navigate the path to finding out a child’s allergy.

 

Some experts have noted that parents have their children unnecessarily avoid a food for fear of an allergy. According to a pediatric food allergy program director interviewed in the article, a common “gold standard” test that they use to diagnose a food allergy, the “oral test challenge,” is surprisingly obvious. Patients [literally] eat small portions of foods they might be allergic to, and if they start having an allergic reaction, the medical supervisor stops the test and administers treatment. Such a method might be perplexing to parents who are looking for more sophisticated science in identifying their children’s allergies, but more research is needed to develop these methods.

 

Children also sometimes outgrow their allergies, and can be determined allergy-free with the same kinds of tests. In the meantime, parents and teachers can do more to learn about children’s food allergies in case an emergency happens at home or at school when there are no nurses around. According to the article, school nurses are usually the only ones trained to administer potentially life-saving epinephrine shots in many schools. The National Academy of Sciences suggests that more school officials be trained to react to food-allergy related emergencies.