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Health News

How Common Are Food Allergies?

by Health After 50  

About one in 10 American adults likely have at least one food allergy, and about half of those with an allergy developed it in adulthood, says a new report published in JAMA Network Open. To obtain that estimate, researchers surveyed more than 40,000 U.S. adults.

But they also found that nearly as many Americans think they have a food allergy even though they were never diagnosed—and most of them had symptoms more consistent with a food intolerance than an allergy.

Unlike a food intolerance, a food allergy can be life-threatening; minuscule amounts of an allergen can set off an immune system reaction called anaphylaxis immediately or within a few hours. Allergy symptoms range from hives and wheezing to eyelid, face, lip, or tongue swelling, a rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. Food intolerance symptoms are less severe, take longer to appear, and usually involve gastrointestinal reactions like bloating, diarrhea, and gas.

People with a severe food allergy should carry an epinephrine auto-injector like an EpiPen to prevent anaphylaxis from a food-allergen exposure. The most common food allergens are shellfish, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, eggs, wheat, soy, and sesame.

What you should do

If you think you have a food allergy, don’t self-diagnose—see an allergist for testing. If you’re diagnosed with an allergy and it’s severe, the allergist will prescribe epinephrine and advise you on how to avoid contact with allergens.

A version of this article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.

Also see New Hope for Severe Peanut Allergies.