Surprising facts about food allergies and babies

Food allergies, we're told, are on the march. Last month, Newsweek featured a cover story with a child wearing a gas mask while holding a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one hand, and a carton of milk in the other. Here's a sample from the somewhat overheated story: "It is hard to fathom how the joys of childhood--a peanut-butter sandwich, a warm chocolate-chip cookie, a cold glass of milk--can send a tiny body into battle mode. How just one bite can make the throat itch, the lips swell, the stomach clench in agony."

Of course, children with serious allergies need special precautions. But the media often pushes the panic button without educating or reassuring the majority of healthy families. Thus, knowing the following--especially for parents of healthy infants--might help ease the anxiety around food allergies:

In general, food allergies are uncommon and usually not very dangerous. Here's a surprising fact: The most common food allergy among children under 3 years old isn't to peanuts, fish, or shellfish. It's to milk. Roughly 2.5 percent (about 1 in 40 kids) are allergic, making the condition twice as common as egg allergy and three times as common as peanut allergies.

Fortunately, most affected infants aren't in serious danger, because food allergies have a wide range of severity. Moreover, most food allergies from infancy disappear over a few years. The most common symptoms aren't acute breathing problems or swelling--which terrifies parents--but an annoying scaly rash called atopic dermatitis. In fact, the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2001 estimated that only 1 in 3 million people have potentially fatal allergies to food. (In comparison, potentially fatal penicillin and insect sting allergies are hundreds of times more common.) And while any death from food allergy is one too many, today only about 200 Americans die each year from them, which is about the same number struck by lightening. Thus, sudden death from food allergies is rare.

But aren't peanut allergies in particular increasing rapidly? It's one of the more dangerous allergies, since the reactions are usually worse than a rash. But it's not clear--despite what you may be seeing in the media--that it's really rising. The only study using actual lab testing for it was in the Isle of Wight, and showed a slight increase from 6 to 13 cases in separate groups of about 1,200 children in 1989 and 1996, but this variation is within the range of random chance. In 2003, the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggested that rates among the youngest children increased from 0.4 percent to 0.8 percent during two separate phone surveys in 1997 and 2002. However, the overall rate including people of all ages was unchanged at 0.6%. Most importantly, among the families surveyed in 2002, the rate among kids under 5 years was essentially the same as children 6 to 10 years old (0.9% vs. 0.8%), which suggests there was no sudden increase.

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