Nearly 20% of US adults think they are food allergic but only half are

In a nationally representative population-based survey of more than 40,000 US adults, around 19 per cent reported having a food allergy. However when questioned further, only an estimated 10 per cent reported having symptoms consistent with a ‘convincing’ allergic reaction to food, such as hives, swelling of the lips or throat, and chest pain. Others who didn’t have a convincing food allergy reported symptoms such as stomach cramps, a stuffy nose, or nausea.  

The study, carried out via the internet and telephone from September 2015 to October 2016, sought to shed light on the prevalence, severity, and health care utilization related to food allergies among US adults. Previous studies have primarily focussed on the prevalence of childhood food allergy.

Nearly half of food-allergic adults in the survey had at least 1 adult-onset food allergy, and 38 per cent reported at least one food allergy–related emergency department visit in their lifetime.

The most common allergies reported were shellfish (3%), milk (2%), peanut (2%), tree nut (1 %), and fin fish (1%). Among food-allergic adults, 51% had experienced a severe food allergy reaction, 45% were allergic to multiple foods, and 48% developed food allergies as an adult.

From a health care utilisation perspective, 24% reported a current adrenaline (i.e. Epipen) prescription, and 38% reported at least 1 food allergy–related lifetime emergency department visit.

The findings, published this month in an open access paper, suggest millions of adults may mistakenly believe they have a food allergy and are likely to be avoiding some foods unnecessarily. The study authors stress the importance of getting a proper medical diagnosis so as to understand and treat any food allergy or sensitivity appropriately.

Reference: Gupta et al. 2019. JAMA Network Open. Vol. 2(1): e185630. DOI:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.5630