Food allergies less common than parents think

Source of Article:

BMJ Group, Monday 4 February 2008


Many parents worry that food allergies are becoming more common in children, but a large study has found that their fears are unfounded. Only a small number of young children suffer from food allergies, and the number affected has not changed in the last 20 years.

What do we know already?

Allergy to certain foods can cause serious reactions in some people. When a person is allergic to a food, their body mistakenly thinks that food is harmful and the body's immune system launches a reaction. Symptoms can include a tingling sensation in the mouth, swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, rash, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. Without treatment some people can lose consciousness and even die.

Many parents worry that their baby or young child has an allergy to food because they get a rash, eczema, vomiting or diarrhoea. These symptoms are very common in young children.

Previous studies have found that less than a third of children and adults who go to their doctor with symptoms of food allergy are in fact allergic. In some studies the number found to have an allergy was less than 1 in 10.

The present study was done to try to gauge the true scale of allergy in children.

What does the new study say?

The study followed more than 800 babies over the first three years of their life. It found that only 58 children had a food allergy during these first three years. That's between 5 in 100 and 6 in 100 children. This is similar to what a US study found 20 years ago. It suggests that the number of children who are allergic to food has not changed in the past two decades.

Tell me about the study's findings

Before their children were tested for allergy, one-third of the parents said they thought their child had a food-related problem. This shows many parents worry about food allergy when there isn't a problem.

The study also found that many young children grew out of their allergy. By the time they were three years old only 27 children were allergic to any food. That's 3 in 100 children included in the study.

The foods most likely to cause an allergy were cow's milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, Brazil nuts and fish. But by the time they were three years old, three-quarters of children who had been allergic to milk no longer had a problem and half of those who had been allergic to eggs had outgrown it.

Where does the report come from?

The study was done by researchers from the University of Portsmouth and St Mary's Hospital in the Isle of Wight. It was published on the website of a journal called Allergy.

How reliable are the findings?

There are some problems with the study. Only a small number of children had tests to confirm their allergy. Although the proportion tested is similar to that in other studies, it makes the results less reliable.

One assumption in the study was that children who tested positive to peanut or sesame at one year were still allergic to these products at three years. They were not tested at two or three years of age because it is thought that young children should avoid these items if they are allergic. Some children might have outgrown their allergy, but we don't know.

What does this mean for me?

If you're feeling anxious because you've heard that food allergies are common among babies and children, you can be reassured by the findings of this study. Only a small number of children are allergic to food. And many who are allergic grow out of it by the time they are three years old. But it's important to see your doctor if you think your child has an allergy to any food as reactions can be dangerous.

What should I do now?

If you think your child has had an allergic reaction to a food it is important to get it checked out. Food allergies can be dangerous. Your doctor should take any worries you have seriously and order tests if he or she thinks these are necessary.

If your child is diagnosed with a food allergy you will be given advice on what to do. This will usually involve avoiding the food or foods for some time. You may also need to carry an injection of adrenalin with you in case your child has an allergic reaction. You may be able to reintroduce the foods as your child gets older. But don't do this without speaking to your doctor first. It could be dangerous.


Venter C, Pereira B, Voigt K, et al. Prevalence and cumulative incidence of food hypersensitivity in the first 3 years of life. Allergy. 2008; 63: 354-359.



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