Once upon a time, if you were a child you ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and were no worse for wear. Today, too many children take a trip to the emergency room (ER) if they consume a single peanut.
Doctors say a growing number of children are allergic, not just to peanuts but to a wide range of foods.
When children with a food allergy come in contact with the offending food, they can suffer a condition known as anaphylaxis, which can include difficulty breathing, reduced blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and potentially death.
ER visits surging
Researchers at Northwestern University report pediatric food allergies are growing at an alarming rate. By their count, ER visits and hospitalizations of children with severe, potentially life-threatening food allergy reactions increased an average of nearly 30% per year over 5 years in Illinois.
Where previously food allergies tended to affect mostly white, upper middle class children, they now are threats to all socio-economic and ethnic groups.
"This study shows that severe food allergies are beginning to impact children of all races and income," said lead study author Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "This is no longer primarily a disease of children who are white and/or from middle-to-high income families. Nobody is immune to it."
In the past, food allergies among Hispanic children were rare. In the Northwestern study, this group had the biggest increase of emergency room and hospitalizations overall, rising 44%.
ER visits jumped from 6.3 per 100,000 children in 2008 to 17.2 visits in 2012. Besides the increase in Hispanic children affected by allergic reactions, ER visits were also sharply higher for African American and Asian children.
Nuts and milk
The most common allergies causing emergency treatment for all populations were tree nuts, peanuts, and milk.
"Ensuring timely diagnosis by the physician and education about recognition and management of severe and potentially fatal reactions is critical," Gupta said. "We need targeted education to all families and public entities including schools, camps and restaurants because anaphylaxis can happen anywhere and at any time."
What's behind the increase remains a mystery, though theories abound. One theory asserts that children in industrialized countries live in overly clean environments and are not exposed to enough bacteria, Gupta said.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) estimates 15 million Americans have food allergies, affecting 1 in every 13 children under the age of 13 in the U.S. According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children doubled between 1997 and 2011.
Besides the health concerns, FARE puts the economic cost of children's food allergies at nearly $25 billion a year.
Meanwhile, a study published earlier this year and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests eating peanuts in infancy helps high-risk babies avoid developing a peanut allergy.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases (NIAID), said the research has the potential to transform how the medical community approaches allergy prevention.
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