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10% of U.S. adults have a food allergy, but double that number think they do

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There’s nothing funny about a food allergy. When more than 10 percent of the U.S. population can get sick or die from eating the wrong kind of food, it’s something that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

New research published in the JAMA Network Open estimates that more than 26 million American adults have a food allergy, an astounding number by almost any measure. The survey, which included over 40,000 adults across the nation, found that about half of those with allergies developed at least one during adulthood.

While nearly one in 10 adults have such an allergy, researchers also found that 19 percent of adults think they are currently food allergic, although many of their reported symptoms are inconsistent with a true food allergy, which can trigger a life-threatening reaction.

“It is important to see a physician for appropriate testing and diagnosis before completely eliminating foods from the diet,” said lead author Dr. Ruchi Gupta with the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a professor at Northwestern University. “If food allergy is confirmed, understanding the management is also critical, including recognizing symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine.”

Researchers discovered that only half of adults with convincing food allergy had a physician-confirmed diagnosis, and less than 25 percent reported a current epinephrine prescription.

The study data indicate that the most prevalent food allergens among U.S. adults are shellfish (affecting 7.2 million adults), milk (4.7 million), peanut (4.5 million), tree nut (3 million), fin fish (2.2 million), egg (2 million), wheat (2 million), soy (1.5 million), and sesame (0.5 million).

“Our data show that shellfish is the top food allergen in adults, that shellfish allergy commonly begins in adulthood, and that this allergy is remarkably common across the lifespan,” Gupta said. “We need more studies to clarify why shellfish allergy appears to be so common and persistent among U.S. adults.”

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