Many think they have food allergies, but really don't, study says

OKLAHOMA CITY - Six-year-old Sabrina Hall's mom is adamant. Sabrina must not eat kiwi.

It began the day she chomped down on a kiwi and, after a moment, said, "Mommy, my tongue hurts."

"She kept pulling at her tongue," said mother Morgan Parke, 25.

Parke figures she knows a food allergy reaction when she sees one. She once took two bites of strawberry jam and had to be rushed to the emergency room as she fell into a full, systemic shut-down. She now avoids strawberries, melons and bananas because all have caused reactions

But many people who think they have food allergies really don't, according to a study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health.

And the related misunderstanding can lead to disaster, said Dr. Richard Hatch, with the Oklahoma Allergy and Asthma Clinic.

If a child is allergic to peanuts and the parent takes him to a day care center or to grandmother, the parent may warn, "This kid is allergic to peanuts and cannot have peanuts at any cost," he said.

But the warning isn't always heeded because the care provider knows there are people who say they're allergic to foods but really aren't, Hatch said.

The study found about 8 percent of children and less than 5 percent of adults have allergic reactions to foods. Yet about 30 percent believe they have food allergies.

"Unfortunately there has been some practice of just blaming any problem on the food allergy, which leads to some overdiagnoses and sort of a societal trivialization of food allergy," said University of California, Los Angeles allergist and immunologist Dr. Marc Riedl, an author of the paper.

Riedl and fellow researchers reviewed more than 12,000 papers on food allergies published between January 1988 and September 2009.

Food allergies are reported to be rising, but the scientists said their research shows that is uncertain. And because there is no uniformity in diagnosing allergies, they found it's difficult to determine how bad allergies have become.

Blood tests, skin prick tests and food challenge tests are typical ways to help determine whether a patient has a food allergy.

Hatch and Riedl said talking to the patient and examining the history of food consumption and reactions are key conventional methods, combined with one or more tests.

Riedl said two big messages developed from the study. First, people need to understand that food allergy means a specific type of serious reaction to food.

"Second is, if people are finding reactions to foods or concerns for food allergy are interfering with their life, their diet, their social events, it is worth getting a proper evaluation with a specialist in allergy."

Parke is not surprised.

"I believe people have reactions to things, though maybe not allergic reactions. I also think things go on in the body that doctors don't know about. When I was younger they said I wasn't allergic to strawberries but I was," Parke said. "So kind of trust your body."

The paper was released this past week in The Journal of the American Medical Association and is part of a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases project.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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