A report published today shows that the growing problem of childhood food allergies is hitting American parents' pocketbooks to the tune of $25 billion per year.

Of that amount, more than $14 billion is the result of lost opportunities at work, study author Dr. Ruchi Gupta told Healthline. Her findings appear in JAMA Pediatrics.

Gupta, of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said she knows firsthand the impact of childhood food allergies on parents and caregivers. Her child is among eight percent of those in the U.S. affected by the life-threatening condition, most commonly triggered by peanuts, milk, and shellfish.

“They're not anything to sneeze at,” Gupta said of food allergies. “You're constantly on guard, because although the child looks completely healthy, if they get exposed to a certain food they can go into anaphylaxis, and that has the potential to take their life.”

Death in Minutes

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that causes itching in the throat, swelling, and eventually the loss of air flow. As a result, the parent of a child who has experienced this even once lives in constant fear of it happening again, Gupta said.

The result, she explained, is a seriously curtailed quality of life. Parents don't want to take jobs that require them to travel, for example. They spend a tremendous amount of time taking their children to the doctor and educating teachers and other caregivers about their child's illness. Even so, they often take time off work to chaperone field trips where their child may encounter new foods for the first time.

Gupta noted that, in 2011, a child in the Chicago school district died after eating Chinese food containing peanuts that had been brought to class during a holiday celebration. She said, the next year the district stocked all of the the city's schools with life-saving epinephrine pens to treat anaphylaxis and have already used them 38 times.

Other significant costs for parents, besides hospitalizations, include the expense of buying allergen-free foods, which are usually only available at specialty stores or online.

Are U.S. Kids Too Clean?

Recent research cites many factors that have accelerated food allergy rates in children. Many people have theorized that a so-called cleanliness craze in the U.S. is making it worse. The idea is that antibacterial soaps and other sanitation methods have created an environment where children are seldom exposed to germs and therefore don't develop strong immune systems.

However, research into that theory is inconclusive. “I do think parents have a duty to keep their children clean,” Gupta said.

Immunizations and antibiotic over-use may also be impacting the development of food allergies in children. “Kids are not being exposed at an early age to viruses and bacteria,” Gupta said. “Our immune systems are getting bored and attacking things. There are good bacteria that live in our guts that are important to our system. Wiping them out cold also may have an impact.”

However, childhood food allergies are also a problem in parts of the world where many vaccines are not available and antibiotic use is not as widespread.

What to Watch Out For

Other potential food allergy triggers include:

  • Tobacco smoke: Research shows that children exposed to smoke pre- and post-natally have a significantly greater risk of developing food allergies during the first three years of life.
  • Genetics: While it's known that genes play a part, the specific genes that cause allergies have not been identified.
  • Antacids: In mice, antacid use can lead to food allergies.
  • Obesity: Overweight children are at greater risk of developing allergies.
  • Lack of sleep

Dr. Kari Nadeau, an allergist at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, is doing cutting-edge research on the causes of food allergies. Nadeau is currently conducting clinical trials on oral immunotherapies to treat the disorder.

Tips for Pregnant Women

Nadeau said it's a good idea for pregnant women to get enough Vitamin D to prevent food allergies in their babies. And she said eating a Mediterranean diet while pregnant can reduce the risk of food allergies in the baby by three-fold.

Nadeau also stressed the importance of taking a child to a board-certified allergist at the first sign of trouble. She said there needs to be more outreach and education about the dangers of food allergies. “Parents of children with food allergies live in fear 365 days a year. So much of our lives revolves around food,” she said.

Parents of children with food allergies can learn more about protecting their kids at Food Allergy Research & Education, or foodallergy.org.

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