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Are we more worried about food allergies than we should be?

Are Food Allergies Much Ado About Something or Nothing?

In 2007, around 3 million children under the age of 18 (of 73 million U.S. children, about 1-in-25, or almost 4 percent) were reported to have a food-related allergy [source: National Center for Health Statistics]. Interestingly, in 2006, there were fewer than 10,000 total hospital discharges of children for food allergies [source: NCHS Press Room].

What's the reason for the disparity in the large number of children who are reported to have food allergies and the relatively small number who are hospitalized?

Fortunately, not all children who have food allergies will require hospitalization. But another reason for the disparity could be that much of the available data is collected through verbal interviews -- simply asking a random sampling of parents if their children, yes or no, have food allergies.

The number of children with clinically proven food allergies is somewhere around 3 percent, or 2.1 million [source: Stoppler]. But according to parents' own yes-or-no responses, around 3 million kids have allergies. That's a difference of nearly 1 million children.

So what accounts for that difference? There are certainly some children who have had food allergy reactions whose parents haven't followed up those episodes with a doctor's visit for diagnosis. But likely there is also a sizable number of parents who have simply reported their children to be food-allergic when in fact their children have some form of food intolerance. It's an easy mistake to make, since food intolerance can have such similar symptoms as food allergies.

Food allergies are very dangerous, but somewhat less common than most of us tend to think. Of course, that's no solace to those who are food allergic, and widespread awareness is certainly a good thing when it comes to our individual and collective abilities to identify and respond to an allergic reaction. You will want to follow your pediatrician's advice when it comes to your child's diet, but your child isn't so likely to develop a food allergy that you should stay up at night breaking out in hives worrying about it.

See the next page for lots more information on food allergies.