Are Your Food Allergies Real?

The National Institutes of Health has been wary of this issue since the early 1980s, Burks says, when a landmark study found that one-third of families reported having someone in the family with a food allergy -- a prevalence that was grossly inconsistent with the 1 percent incidence of food allergies seen at the time.

More recently, misuse and misinterpretation of diagnostic tests has become a major problem.

"One of the things we see often is that doctors order skin tests," in which the food in question is exposed to a scratch in the skin and monitored for a reaction, "and diagnose based solely on that," Sampson says. The problem is, as past research has shown, a positive skin test only translates into a true allergy 35 to 40 percent of the time, he says, leaving a lot of room for false positives.

Burks says that often children come into his clinic with a long list of foods they supposedly can't eat, but it's actually only a couple of foods that are causing the reaction. Other times, the symptoms are only mild and vague, such as a headaches, and don't point to a clear allergy, but their doctors have diagnosed it as such.

"There just isn't a good understanding in the medical community of how to use these tests. That's why they are doing these guidelines," he says.

The Dangers of Overdiagnosis

While mistakenly avoiding a food is certainly less dangerous than accidentally eating something that will send you to the hospital, there are some serious repercussions to this trend of overdiagnosis, Riedl says.

For patients with misdiagnoses, they can be put on very restrictive diets that can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, he says, and occasional nutritional problems.

"I spend a lot of time educating people on what constitutes a real allergy and what level of concern they need to have" because patients come in thinking they are more allergic than they are, Riedl says. "It's very important that they're not worried about having a life-threatening problem when that's not the case."

On a more public health level, overdiagnosis "leads to some trivialization of this condition," Riedl says, "and people start to associate a food allergy with dislike of a food or mild intolerance," which makes people take true food allergies less seriously.

Dane agrees, saying that this type of colloquial use of the term "allergic" is annoying because "it diminishes the seriousness of the situation that people with allergies live with day in and day out."

Putting Allergy Tests to the Test

How do you know your food allergy is for real?

The two main allergy tests, the skin test, and a blood serum test -- which looks for antibodies in the blood for specific foods -- are not conclusive on their own, Sampson says.

"The tests are good for telling us if someone has antibodies for a food, not so good for telling us if someone will have a reaction to the food," he says. "The more antibodies you have, the higher the likelihood of an allergic reaction, but even that's not full proof," he says.

So if you've been diagnosed as allergic after one of those tests, but you haven't had an allergic reaction to that food in the past, it's likely that you are not actually allergic, Sampson says.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...