Food allergies have become a major public health issue, with the government reversing course on allergen exposure and the race for finding a mechanism, or even a cure, heating up. It’s a race that’s becoming more urgent — as it’s starting to become clear just how common allergies are.
FAIR Health, a nonprofit that studies health insurance data, looked at insurance claim data to see where and among what groups allergies were becoming more prominent. The answer, surprisingly, is that while children 18 and under still have the vast majority of allergies, at 66% of total claims, adult onset allergies are growing, and growing fast:
…private insurance claim lines with diagnoses of anaphylactic food reactions climbed 377 percent nationwide from 2007 to 2016… When the claim lines with diagnoses of anaphylactic food reaction were analyzed by type of food, the most common reaction (33 percent of claim lines) was associated with “other specific foods,” which generally means that the actual allergy is not known, prompting the physician to use a generic diagnosis code. Among specifically identified foods causing anaphylaxis, the most common was peanuts (26 percent), followed closely by tree nuts and seeds (18 percent). Egg allergies, crustacean allergies (e.g., allergies to shrimp or lobster) and dairy allergies were also common, making up, respectively, 7percent, 6 percent and 5 percent of the anaphylactic food reaction claim lines.
377% is a staggering number, and nobody is entirely sure why adult-onset allergies are climbing so quickly. There seem to be a number of factors, the most basic of which are that the allergy has always been there, and doctors are just getting better at diagnosing them as allergies (note: doctors have a misdiagnosis rate of 10 to 20%, depending on who you ask). FAIR notes that doctors have gotten more precise at diagnosing the cause of the allergy. You can also age into your allergies just as easily as you age out of them, so what might start as a minor reaction to peanuts can become a full blown health risk as a result.
But does that explain all of it? There’s increasing evidence that our overuse of antibiotics and obsession with sterilizing every last thing is contributing to the rise in allergies, and in fact, a recent trial to reduce peanut allergies in children used a probiotic to bolster the body’s ability to take on peanuts, with a stunning 70% of the children in the small trial essentially free to eat peanuts without worry.
The answer is likely a mix of the two. We’ll need to dial back the antibiotics when we don’t need them, and also listen to our doctors as they get better at diagnosing exactly what ails us.