Food Allergies in Kids: More Common Than We Thought?

Up to 8 percent of kids under 18 have food allergies, researchers say.

June 17, 2011, 9:49 AM

June 20, 2011— -- Within seconds after slurping half a teaspoon of yogurt, 2-year-old Kline got a "boo boo" in his throat. The tot from Truckee, Calif., first coughed, then gagged, then vomited violently as his frantic mom, Loren McCormac, called 911. Paramedics arrived minutes later, saving McCormac from the horror of stabbing an adrenaline-loaded needle into her baby boy.

When he was 6 months old, Kline tested positive for severe allergies to milk, eggs, nuts and wheat. He can't even have foods processed anywhere near the fearsome four ingredients. His parents keep an Epi Pen close at all times -- Kline's only defense against a life-threatening exposure. Because despite his "I have food allergies" t-shirt, his MedicAlert bracelet and his self-professed paranoid mom, he's never completely safe.

"It's created a crazy mother out of me," said McCormac, a stay-at-home mom. "It's a lot of responsibility, especially when you have an active boy who puts everything in his mouth."

Preparing Kline's food and making sure he's not eating someone else's (as in the yogurt scare) is a full-time job. McCormac uses books like "Allie the Allergic Elephant," and "Cody the Allergic Cow" to teach Kline how certain foods can trigger dangerous reactions with hopes that, one day, he'll understand the perils of pizza and the consequences of a cookie. But for now, "he's 2, and he wants that cookie," McCormac said.

Food allergies appear to be on the rise across the country. The latest study, published today in Pediatrics, found that 8 percent of kids nationwide (an estimated 5.9 million children under 18) have at least one food allergy -- a proportion larger than expected, the authors reported. Among them, 38.7 percent had a history of severe reactions and 30.4 percent had multiple food allergies.

But some parents may be mistaking their kids' dislikes and mild sensitivities for full-on food allergies, allergists say.

"One of the problems with this study is that it relies on self-reporting" rather than diagnostic tests, like a skin test, said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Nevertheless, there is good evidence that allergies are more common in this day of vaccines and hand sanitizers than they used to be, according to Dr. Martha Hartz, a consultant in pediatric allergy and immunology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

"When babies are born in a developing country, they have a low risk of allergic disease. But when they're born in a Western lifestyle country, the prevalence of food allergy is increased," said Hartz. It seems that in the absence of certain invaders, such as bacteria and parasites, the immune system "creates mischief."Food Allergies in Kids: Constant Worry for Parents

Unfortunately, there's little parents can do to limit the risk of food allergies in their children.

"Parents always worry they did something wrong, but there's nothing they did. If we knew what to do we'd tell them," Hartz said. However, "breastfeeding for the first six months has been shown to protect against food allergies to some extent," she added.

Some promising treatments for severe food allergies, such as desensitization therapy, are on the horizon. But the approach, which uses tiny doses of processed foods, such as peanut flour, to slowly tame the immune response is "not ready for prime time," Hartz said.

In the meantime, it falls upon parents like McCormac to do all they can to limit the exposure risk for their kids. McCormac debated sending Kline to preschool in the fall, but said she's having second thoughts.

"It's just scary. He has only been with my husband and me," she said, adding that she'll only leave Kline with "Grammy" when he's asleep.

McCormac knows it will be tough for Kline to accept that he can't have certain treats at school or at birthday parties.

"How I wish my baby could go to a party and eat everything there, pizza, ice cream and cake, or go to a restaurant," McCormac said, having visions of worriedly following him to parties into his teens to make sure he doesn't indulge. "I just hope he grows out of it or they figure out how to help him."

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