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Study Finds Half Of People Who Think They Have A Food Allergy Do Not

A recent study has revealed that the number of adults who believe they have a food allergy is nearly double the figure who actually have one. The study, conducted in the US, mirrors the statistics of other countries. Researchers have found that many adults unnecessarily avoid certain foods, while others with allergies lack the medication they might need to prevent a potentially fatal reaction.

Research shows that roughly 11% of adults – more than 26 million people – have a food allergy. Most of these people developed the allergy as adults.

“This is really concerning because chances are, they could eat the food and then all of a sudden they have a reaction to a food that they could previously tolerate – so what changed in their environment or in them that caused them to now develop this food allergy?” says Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrics professor at Northwestern University, and one of the authors of the study. “Some of these foods you know that they probably were able to eat [previously] because they are such common foods in the diet, but shellfish was interesting – it could be one that they are trying for the first time as an adult.”

Gideon Lack, a pediatric allergy professor at King’s College in London, says the increasing number of food allergies in adults may be associated to the rise in childhood allergies in the past 20 years. He believes that the focus on children’s food allergies has shifted attention and resources away from the diagnosis and treatment of adults with food allergies.

The study, in which 40,000 adults took part, surveyed two groups of participants between October 2015 and September 2016. Volunteers were asked if they believed they had a food allergy and what their diagnoses and symptoms were. The researchers then evaluated the participants' actual reactions, like throat constriction or vomiting. Those who had bloating, stomach discomfort or diarrhea were dismissed since their symptoms more accurately reflected a lactose or food intolerance.

Overall, the survey revealed that the most common food allergy was to shellfish, which affects 2.9% of adults, followed by milk and peanut allergies, which affect 1.9% and 1.8% of adults respectively. The study also found that while 19% of participants believed they had a food allergy, only 10.8% actually had one.

“There are so many adults out there who have a negative reaction to a food. It is really important to get a proper diagnosis so that they can really know is this something treatable like lactose intolerance or is this a life-threatening food allergy that they need to be very careful with,” Gupta says.

Of those with actual allergies, more than half had developed the condition as adults, while 38% had to be admitted to the emergency room as a result of a reaction. Only 48%, however, had actually been diagnosed by a doctor and just 25% had a prescription for adrenaline, which is used to treat allergic reactions.

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According to Stephen Till, an allergy professor at King’s College in London, the incidence of actual allergies seemed high, yet the results were similar to his medical experience in the UK. “I often see patients who think that they have a severe allergy who either aren’t allergic or who have a mild allergy. They may have been unnecessarily prescribed adrenaline auto-injectors and be on a restricted diet avoiding even trace exposure to the suspected culprit,” he says. “Unfortunately, we have a shortage of physicians who are trained in adult allergy and so this amplifies these kinds of problems.”

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