NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - One in 12 children in the United States may have a food allergy, with more than a third of those having severe allergies, according to a study.
The study, published in Pediatrics, also showed that allergies were more common in minority children.
"What I hope this paper will do is open this awareness to how common (food allergy) is and how severe it can be, and develop policies for schools and sporting events and any activities that kids participate in to make it clear that everybody is looking out for these kids," said lead author Ruchi Gupta, from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Previous studies have estimated that anywhere between 2 and 8 percent of children in the United States has a food allergy, but most of these were studies that asked participants many different health questions, with allergies only one of many concerns, Gupta said.
Other studies have looked at emergency room trips for allergic reactions, or evaluated doctors' diagnoses in records.
But Gupta and her colleagues wanted to design a study focused solely on the rate and severity of food allergies. They surveyed a nationally representative sample of almost 40,000 U.S. adults who lived with a child under 18.
Those adults filled out an online questionnaire about allergies based on a single child in their household, reporting whether or not the child had any signs or symptoms of a food allergy, had ever been diagnosed with an allergy by a doctor, and had ever had a severe allergic reaction to food.
The results showed that 8 percent of children, almost 6 million, had a diagnosed food allergy or convincing symptoms that indicated an allergy. The most common ones were peanuts, milk and shellfish.
"One of our big findings was that 2 in 5 kids who had allergies had a severe reaction or a life-threatening reaction," she added.
Severe reactions were more common in older children, possibly because young children with allergies are more likely to be monitored by parents to make sure they stay away from potential allergy triggers.
Gupta and her colleagues also found that black and Asian children had higher chances of having a food allergy than white children, but that they were less likely to have that allergy diagnosed by a doctor.
That disparity needs to be addressed, said Scott Sicherer, an allergy researcher at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study.
"The family is saying that their child had convincing reactions and yet they weren't really evaluated to confirm that with a doctor," said Sicherer.
"Is that because they're not getting the health care they need? Is that because there's not an appropriate amount of concern? I would be worried that the next reaction could be severe and they're not prepared for it."
Both Gupta and Sicherer said they thought food allergies were becoming more frequent, but added that researchers weren't sure why. Gupta said perhaps there might be something in the environment driving the increase.
"As a clinician, I see it a lot more," she added. SOURCE: bit.ly/jsoh2P
Reporting by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies