When is a food allergy not a food allergy? When the reported symptoms are inconsistent with actual life-threatening reactions.
While it is estimated that more than 10% of adults in the US have a potentially deadly food allergy, nearly twice as much simply confuses intolerance or "other food-related conditions" with allergies, according to researchers.
For example, if I eat melon (melon, melon, even watermelon), there is a good chance my throat swells to mortal proportions. Whereas if I ingest nutmeg, I will be relegated to the bathroom with intense stomach aches and loose bowels.
One is an allergy, the other is a very unpleasant intolerance.
"It's important to see a doctor for proper tests and diagnostics before completely eliminating foods from the diet," study author Ruchi Gupta of Anne & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago and Northwestern University said in a statement.
"If food allergy is confirmed, understanding management is also critical," she continued, "including recognizing the symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine."
In a nationwide survey of more than 40,000 adults, only half of the participants with a "compelling" food allergy (the word from the Lurie Children's Hospital, not mine) had a diagnosis confirmed by the doctor. Less than 25% reported a current prescription of epinephrine.
If you swallow a handful of peanuts and later experience hives, wheezing, nausea, and dizziness, it is hard to argue that you are allergic – even without an official medical certificate.
But swelling and rashes a few hours after eating certain foods, though undesirable, are not necessarily equal to hypersensitivity.
Perhaps most curious, however, is researchers' finding that nearly half of all food-allergic adults developed at least one of their harmful immune responses later in life.
"We were surprised to find that food allergies in adults were so common," Gupta said. "More research is needed to understand why this is occurring and how we can avoid it."
Data from the study indicate that the most prevalent food allergens among US adults are mollusks (7.2 million people), milk (4.7 million), peanuts (4.5 million), walnuts (3 million), fish (2 million), wheat (2 million), soy (1.5 million) and sesame (0.5 million).
The full study was published in JAMA Network Open.
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