Pediatricians and allergists have been suspecting it but recently the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed it: more American children than ever are developing allergies to some of the most common items in the nation’s food supply. According to their latest report, the number of children with food allergies has jumped by 18% in the last ten years. And they fear this is more than likely an underestimation of the real situation.

About 90% of the time, food allergies involve just eight foods and their by-products: eggs, milk, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and/or tree nuts. This growing rate of children’s food allergies is a phenomenon that seems to be associated with children of the United States as well as children in nations where a typical Western diet and lifestyle have been adapted.

Children in areas where diets have remained true to their ancestry eat these same allergenic foods but rarely develop allergies to them. While no one knows at this time why this disparity exists, many factors may be at play.

For example, children in China eat peanuts and foods made from peanuts as much as children in the US do. In the US, the preference is for dry roasted peanuts but, in China, peanuts are more often fried or boiled. The prolonged, high temperatures involved with dry roasting do cause changes in the peanuts that render them more allergenic than other cooking methods do.

While avoiding foods that make children sick is tricky enough, it’s not the only concern. Children with food allergies are more likely than those without to develop asthma and respiratory or skin allergies. And when severe enough, food allergies can be fatal.

According to the CDC report, approximately 4% of all American children under the age of 18 years old have now been diagnosed with food allergies. Milk and egg allergies usually occur within a child’s first year of life and as many as 6% to 8% of all US kids develop some type of food allergy by their third birthday. In many cases, a child outgrows the allergy by age 10.

A food allergy develops when eating the offending food triggers a wild reaction by the immune system, the first sign of which is often a skin rash. More severe allergic responses include vomiting and impaired breathing, which can endanger a child’s life. Food intolerances, while troublesome, are an inability to digest or metabolize foods but the immune system isn’t so dramatically involved. Symptoms of intolerance often include an achy stomach, bloating, and maybe diarrhea.

The prevalence of additional immune dysfunction associated with children’s food allergies, according to the CDC report, is:

  • Asthma: 29% of children with food allergies eventually develop asthma whereas only 12% of those without food allergies do so.
  • Eczema or skin allergies: 27% of children with food allergies develop these skin conditions but only 8% of those without the food allergies do.
  • Respiratory allergies: These occur in 30% of the children with food allergies but only in 9% of children without them.

Food allergies can be very dangerous to a child and should never be taken lightly. Hugh Sampson, MD, director of the Jaffee Food Allergy Institute at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, welcomes the CDC report and urges parents everywhere to be particularly mindful of skin rashes children may develop. Because skin rashes are one of the first symptoms of food allergies, each rash a child develops should be evaluated by his or her pediatrician.