A new study suggests almost half of US adults that believe they have a food allergy do not actually have one, according to Forbes. Roughly 10 percent are estimated to have legitimate food allergies, while nearly 20 percent report allergies but describe symptoms inconsistent with a real allergic reaction.
“While we found that one in 10 adults have food allergy, nearly twice as many adults think that they are allergic to foods, while their symptoms may suggest food intolerance or other food-related conditions,” said the study’s first author, Ruchi Gupta M.D, a pediatrics professor at Northwestern University.
The research was published Friday in the journal JAMA Network Open, and was conducted in 2015 and 2016.
In their survey of over 40,000 US adults, they found only half those reporting a food allergy had been diagnosed by a doctor. They also assessed whether reported allergies were “convincing” based on their descriptions of symptoms.
“If they only had, say, bloating or stomach pain or diarrhea then we took them out because that could be a lactose intolerance or a food intolerance,” according to Gupta.
The most common allergies found to be “convincing” involved shellfish, at 2.9 percent, followed by milk at 1.9 percent, and peanuts at 1.8.
Real food allergies are a serious, even life-threatening condition, without proper treatment.
“If food allergy is confirmed, understanding the management is also critical, including recognizing symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine,” said Gupta.
“There are so many adults out there who have a negative reaction to a food. It is really important to get a proper diagnosis so that they can really know is this something treatable like lactose intolerance, or is this a life-threatening food allergy that they need to be very careful with.”
About 38 percent of those with apparently legitimate allergies had made emergency visits to the hospital as a result. Troublingly, the survey showed that only a quarter of those with actual allergies had a prescription for life-saving epinephrine.
The research also found that over half of those with food allergies had developed them as an adult, a much higher number than expected.
“We were surprised to find that adult-onset food allergies were so common. More research is needed to understand why this is occurring and how we might prevent it,” said Gupta.