Food allergies are a serious matter that typically require a physician’s diagnosis. But a new report is now pointing to some confusion ― among both patients and doctors ― about what actually constitutes a food allergy and what is instead a food intolerance.
The line between food allergy and food intolerance is so murky that it is difficult to determine if food allergies are on the rise or decline, according to the report, which was compiled by 15 doctors appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), a consortium of non-profits that provides expert opinion for public and policy consumption.
“No simple diagnostic tests exist for food allergy,” the committee members wrote. While a skin prick test can determine the likelihood of a food allergy, in other cases, an oral food challenge is necessary. Oral food challenges, which exposes patients to larger servings of a potentially allergic item over time, can confirm a diagnosis.
Approximately 4 million children in the United States have food allergies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These can develop as early as the first year of life, and consist of eight major food groups. This includes milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish.
Allergens from these food groups can cause a reaction that ranges from mild (think: watery eyes) to severe and life-threatening, like anaphylaxis.
Cause for confusion
There are a number of factors that make getting a clear snapshot of food allergy prevalence a true challenge. Food allergies and intolerances can have symptom overlap. For example, experiencing stomach discomfort after drinking milk could be a sign of lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy, since GI issues are associated with both.
Separately, confusion about food allergies stems from simple ignorance: Many people with true food allergies might not know they have them, and others who think they have a food allergy might not, since both population-based surveys and physicians use the term loosely.
Complicating matters, children can outgrow a food allergy, while adults can acquire one.
A call to action
As part of their report, researchers spoke with nine parents of children with food allergies and one individual who experiences a food allergy personally in order to better understand the anxieties and stress the condition can cause.
“We heard about the anxiety they feel in restaurants, schools, airplanes and other settings where they are fearful about unintentional exposure to a food that can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction,” the researchers said.
The report closed with a call for more solid research, such as understanding patient predisposition and food allergy origin, to ultimately manage, treat and cure food allergy.
In the meantime, if you are a parent or worry about having food allergies yourself, watch for swelling of lips and tongue, dizziness or itching in the mouth as those are some of the more common and mild symptoms of an allergic reaction.
H/T NBC News