You probably know at least one person who’s allergic to something — or at least, they think they are. It turns out a lot of people who think they’re allergic to a specific food don’t actually have a true food allergy. According to a new study published in JAMA Network Open, 19 percent of U.S. adults think they have a food allergy, but only about 10 percent actually do. That means nearly twice as many people think they're allergic to something they aren’t, according to the study.
“While we found that one in 10 adults have a food allergy […] their symptoms may suggest food intolerance or other food related conditions,” Dr. Ruchi Gupta, from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University and lead author of the study, said in the news release.
The researchers’ results are based on a nationally representative survey of more than 40,000 U.S. adults, according to the news release. The researchers found that only half of U.S. adults had been diagnosed by a physician for their food allergies. And less than 25 percent reported having a current epinephrine prescription, a life-saving injection used to treat severe allergic reactions, according to the University of Michigan.
The researchers’ results are in line with past studies on people’s perceptions of their food allergies. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology analyzed the electronic medical record data of more than 2.7 million patients with food allergies over 13 years. The researchers found that the number of people who had true, diagnosed food allergies were lower than the number of self-reported food allergies, though the report did not specify exactly what the difference was between true allergies and self-reported allergies. And a 2016 study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology also found lower rates of true food allergies compared to self-reported food allergies.
Knowing whether you actually are allergic to a specific food is really important not just for your own health: using the word “allergy” lightly can be dangerous to those who really do have allergies. Food allergies don’t just cause tummy troubles, says the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI); they can cause hives, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, circulatory collapse, trouble swallowing, swelling tongue, a weak pulse, and anaphylaxis. Reactions to food allergies can happen within minutes of eating what you’re allergic to, but sometimes the reaction can take longer, like up to four to six hours, according to the ACAAI. While non-allergic food intolerances are a perfectly legitimate reason to not eat certain foods, calling them "allergies" can weaken support for people who do indeed have serious or life-threatening allergies.
“It is important to see a physician for appropriate testing and diagnosis before completely eliminating foods from the diet,” Dr. Gupta said in the news release. “If food allergy is confirmed, understanding the management is also critical, including recognizing symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine.”
If you think you might be allergic to something, an allergist can help you figure it out for sure through a skin prick test, blood test, or an oral food challenge, according to the ACAAI. Don’t worry; the oral food challenge isn't like some YouTube challenge. Your allergist supervises you while you eat tiny amounts of whatever food you think you might be allergic to, says the ACAAI, and they’ll have emergency medication and equipment on hand just in case you have an allergic reaction.
If a certain food is giving you trouble, try not to make assumptions about what that’s all about. For some people, food allergies can be a life or death issue, and that’s definitely something to take super seriously.