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Food allergiesLife-threatening food allergies weren’t something I came across much growing up—yes, I might have known a classmate or two who couldn’t enjoy the same PB&J I did everyday (to which I sympathized)—but back then, it wasn’t a totally common occurrence. Now, some 20 years later (ahem), food allergies appear to be developing in kids more than ever: A new study has found that as many as one in every 12 kids in the United States may have a food allergy, suggesting that prevalence of food allergies might be twice as high as past research indicates.

In 2008, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that approximately 3.9 percent of American children, or around 3 million kids, had food or digestive allergies. But a recent study, led by allergy specialist Ruchi Gupta, M.D., of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, found that as many as 8 percent (or nearly 6 million) of American children have been diagnosed with a food allergy. What’s more, nearly 40 percent of those kids had suffered a severe reaction to certain foods, like airway restriction or a drop in blood pressure. The most common allergy was to peanuts, followed by milk, then shellfish.

The study’s authors surveyed nearly 40,000 U.S. adults who lived with a child under 18 through an online questionnaire. Parents reported whether or not their child showed any signs or symptoms of a food allergy, had ever been diagnosed with an allergy by a doctor, and/or had ever had a severe allergic reaction to food.

The research found that Asian and black children are more likely to have food allergies than white children, yet white children are more likely to get a confirmed diagnosis than Asian, black, or Hispanic children. Also, the incidences of food allergies in kids whose household income was less than $50,000 were lower than those kids whose families earned between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. Researchers suspect this 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.

According to the CDC, the number of kids with a food allergy went up 18 percent from 1997 to 2007—but the reasons for this are still unclear. Some experts suspect that the average Western diet of sugars, animal fats, and processed foods has lowered the number of healthy bacteria in our guts, making our immune systems more susceptible to developing allergies; others suspect that the novel proteins in GMOs may trigger food allergies, especially in kids. Still others feel that it’s simply a matter of parents and doctors being more aware of food allergies and their warning signs than they were 15 years ago.

Regardless, these latest findings confirm what many parents of children with food allergies already know—the health impact of food allergies is real and troubling. If you suspect your child may suffer from a food allergy, no matter how mild, take her to a certified specialist for testing. If the allergist finds she should avoid certain foods, double check the labels of everything she eats, ask about ingredients at restaurants, and work with your doctor to develop a food allergy action plan. Early detection is key, and might even save your child’s life.

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