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How Common Are Food Allergies?
Illinois Ag Connection - 01/09/2019

What are the prevalence and severity of food allergy in U.S. adults?

In a population-based survey study of 40,443 U.S. adults, an estimated 10.8% were food allergic at the time of the survey, whereas nearly 19% of adults believed that they were food allergic. Nearly half of food-allergic adults had at least 1 adult-onset food allergy, and 38% reported at least 1 food allergy--related emergency department visit in their lifetime.

The findings suggest that food allergies are common and severe among U.S. adults, often starting in adulthood.

Food allergy is a costly, potentially life-threatening condition. Although studies have examined the prevalence of childhood food allergy, little is known about prevalence, severity, or health care utilization related to food allergies among US adults.

In this cross-sectional survey study of US adults, surveys were administered via the internet and telephone from October 9, 2015, to September 18, 2016. Participants were first recruited from NORC at the University of Chicago's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, and additional participants were recruited from the non--probability-based Survey Sampling International (SSI) panel.

Self-reported food allergies were the main outcome and were considered convincing if reported symptoms to specific allergens were consistent with IgE-mediated reactions. Diagnosis history to specific allergens and food allergy--related health care use were also primary outcomes. Estimates were based on this nationally representative sample using small-area estimation and iterative proportional fitting methods. To increase precision, AmeriSpeak data were augmented by calibration-weighted, non--probability-based responses from SSI.

Results Surveys were completed by 40?443 adults (mean [SD] age, 46.6 [20.2] years), with a survey completion rate of 51.2% observed among AmeriSpeak panelists (n?=?7210) and 5.5% among SSI panelists (n?=?33?233). Estimated convincing food allergy prevalence among U.S. adults was 10.8% (95% CI, 10.4%-11.1%), although 19.0% (95% CI, 18.5%-19.5%) of adults self-reported a food allergy. The most common allergies were shellfish (2.9%; 95% CI, 2.7%-3.1%), milk (1.9%; 95% CI, 1.8%-2.1%), peanut (1.8%; 95% CI, 1.7%-1.9%), tree nut (1.2%; 95% CI, 1.1%-1.3%), and fin fish (0.9%; 95% CI, 0.8%-1.0%). Among food-allergic adults, 51.1% (95% CI, 49.3%-52.9%) experienced a severe food allergy reaction, 45.3% (95% CI, 43.6%-47.1%) were allergic to multiple foods, and 48.0% (95% CI, 46.2%-49.7%) developed food allergies as an adult. Regarding health care utilization, 24.0% (95% CI, 22.6%-25.4%) reported a current epinephrine prescription, and 38.3% (95% CI, 36.7%-40.0%) reported at least 1 food allergy--related lifetime emergency department visit.

These data suggest that at least 10.8% (>26 million) of US adults are food allergic, whereas nearly 19% of adults believe that they have a food allergy. Consequently, these findings suggest that it is crucial that adults with suspected food allergy receive appropriate confirmatory testing and counseling to ensure food is not unnecessarily avoided and quality of life is not unduly impaired.

Authors of the study released this week in JAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association - include Ruchi S. Gupta, M.D., M.P.H., Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, Chicago, and Christopher M. Warren, BA5; Bridget M. Smith, PhD; Jialing Jiang, BA; Jesse A. Blumenstock, BS; Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP; Robert P. Schleimer, PhD; and Kari C. Nadeau, MD, PhD.

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