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Video: Why are more kids suffering from food allergies?

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    >>> back now at 8:19 this morning on today's health food allergies in children. according to a new study they might be far more common than people originally thought and the consequences can be deadly. here's nbc 's chief science correspondent.

    >> reporter: 4-year-old audrey is being tested for allergies at denver jewish medical center because her mom kristen, family doctor , noticed some strange reaks to many foods .

    >> it's very challenging because we have to obviously prepare special meals for her every time she eats. and we really can't eat out in restaurants unless we pack her food in a cooler.

    >> reporter: she's not alone. the study at children's memorial hospital in chicago surveyed families of more than 40,000 children aged 17 and younger. it found that 8% of children, that's one in 12, had food allergies . and more than a third of the kids with allergies had experienced serious reactions.

    >> we have to be aware that severe reactions can occur and this study shows for the first time that the prevalence of severe reactions was rather high.

    >> reporter: according to the study the most common allergies were to peanuts, followed by milk and shellfish. but allergies to all kinds of foods appear to be increasing and doctors are most fied as to why. the leading theory is that kids are not, posed to certain foods as early in life as they used to be. for audrey, it reveals food news. she's not allergic to shrimp. the conclusion? food allergies are wide spread and increasing. but they require an accurate diagnosis, so parents can be aware of those foods that present the greatest risk. for "today," nbc news, new york.

    >> dr. nancy snyderman is nbc 's chief medical contributor. one in 12, why the rise?

    >> we're not sure. it may be a combination of things. one, we become germaphobes. and instead of going the old way of introducing foods one at a time, breast milk or formula, and then vegetables and then rice cereal and then fruits we throw a complex foods at children too early. it may be that their immune systems are hyper reactive so that when they get foods later in life, their immune system goes, wait, this looks like it's foreign to me. it overreacts and then children come down with these symptoms of food reaction.

    >> we shouldn't be probably introducing foods , we don't know that that's the cause, but we shouldn't be introducing complex foods until at least 1?

    >> follow your pediatrician's advice and introduce foods according to a routine schedule in infancy.

    >> what symptoms should parents be looking for?

    >> classic.

    >> how early?

    >> usually have to do with itching or tingling on the roof of the mouth . sometimes difficulty swallowing . any time a child says, mom, i feel like my throat is swelling up or having difficulty breathing . wheezing, anything you see on this list, you call your pediatrician. the one thing i don't want parents to do is say, well, i think johnny or susie reacted to shellfish last week. let's try it again today to see. you don't want to do that. there are ways to challenge with certain foods that may have -- may be questionable. but that is done in an allergist's office under extreme supervision because you don't want that full-on reaction where someone can really have problems breathing and have a cardiac arrest.

    >> you mentioned shellfish and they have been tied to shellfish, peanuts and the milk products .

    >> the funny thing about milk, human beings are the only ma'am what that after being weaned still consumes milk. we know it's a great source of protein. but those three things with absolute culprits. so if you're concerned about that, please, please, please talk to your pediatrician.

    >> dr. nancy snyderman , trying to make sure we're healthy. thank

Image: Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta and her family
Courtesy of Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta
Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta, the lead author of a new study on food alleries, understands the challenges of monitoring a child's diet. She has a 4-year-old daughter, Riya, who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts — and a 9-year-old son, Rohan, without allergies who loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For Gupta and her husband, Dr. Tarun Jain, it's like "two different lives with different rules."
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
TODAY.com
updated 6/20/2011 8:33:54 AM ET 2011-06-20T12:33:54

As many as one in every 12 kids in the United States may have a food allergy, according to a new study that appears to confirm that the condition is more widespread — and perhaps more dangerous — than previously thought.

“Understanding how common it is and how severe it is, that’s important to note,” said Dr. Ruchi S. Gupta, lead author of a study published in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics. “It's very important that people understand that this is very real."

Eight percent of children younger than 18 suffer from allergies — nearly 6 million kids in the U.S. — and nearly 40 percent of those youngsters had suffered a severe reaction to certain foods, according to Gupta, a pediatrician and researcher at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. More than 30 percent of those children were allergic to multiple foods, the study found.

The results are based on a nationally representative sample of almost 40,000 online surveys of parents of children younger than 18. They suggest that prevalence of food allergies might be twice as high as other large recent studies have found. Although the cases were reported by the parents themselves, the questions were developed specifically for food allergies and the responses were vetted by an expert panel, Gupta said.

“If anything, our numbers are quite conservative,” said Gupta. “I think this is a good, accurate estimate.”

Peanut allergies were most common, followed by allergies to milk and to shellfish.

TODAY Moms: Living in a world of constant danger -- one mom's story of food allergies

Reports of food allergies that either had convincing serious symptoms or were confirmed by doctors were most common in children who were white, in middle-income families earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, and in those who lived in the south, the study found.

However, the odds of children having allergies were actually higher in black and Asian children — and far lower in families that made less than $50,000 a year. Even though they were more likely to have allergies, minority children were less likely to have their allergies diagnosed by doctors, the study found.

It will take more research to determine the cause of those disparities, but Gupta suspects that it might be because minority or low-income kids have less access to medical care, or because their parents might not be familiar with food allergies.

“Some parents, they don’t even tell me about a food allergy because they don’t think a doctor can do anything,” she said. “They may just stay away from certain foods.”

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Severe reactions were more common in older children, but Gupta said that’s likely because younger kids’ environments are closely monitored by their parents.

Previous studies of allergy prevalence have ranged from 2 percent to 8 percent of kids, with large recent studies pegging the figure at about 4 percent.

Gupta’s findings underscore the need to seek prompt, accurate diagnoses of allergies, said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Parents sometimes assume that a child’s bad reaction to food is an allergy, but they need to make sure said Fineman, who practices as the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic.

No surprise to mom of allergic girl, 13
The findings that allergies might be more common than previously thought don’t come as a surprise to Michele Richoux, whose 13-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts and shellfish, and can’t eat wheat because of celiac disease.

“I see it all the time,” said the Tampa, Fla., mother of two, whose child has gone from being the only kid in a class with food allergies, to being part of a small group.

She’s heard from skeptics who don’t believe allergies exist — or that they can be so serious.

“We haven’t found people have been mean, it’s just ignorance,” she said.

Richoux hopes that Gupta’s study and others will help boost knowledge about the potentially dangerous consequences of food allergies. Her daughter has had two serious reactions to food and once had to go to the hospital after a substitute teacher gave out Reese’s Peanut Butter cups as a reward in class.

“With more people having it, it’s sad, but it brings a higher level of awareness for everyone,” she said.

The new research was personal as well as professional for Gupta, the mother of a 9-year-old boy, Rohan, who loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — and a 4-year-old daughter, Riya, who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. She knows well the worries of monitoring a child's diet.

"As a parent of a child with each, I totally feel it," she said. "You live these two different lives with two different rules."

She has plans for future studies that will explore the geographic distribution of food allergies in kids and also research focused on the most pressing issue: why food allergies appear to be increasing.

"I do agree with those skeptics who say that it is happening more, and I do believe that it is real," she said. "The question is, what has changed in our environment and our lifestyles that is causing this?"

For more stories like this one, "like" TODAY Health on Facebook.

Reuters contributed to this report.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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