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Food Allergies in Teens: They Can Begin in Adolescence—or Even Adulthood

We often think of food allergies as a little kid thing, their parents vigilant for any exposure and toting Epi-Pens everywhere they go. And thankfully, many kids do outgrow their allergies before they reach adulthood.

What’s less well-known is that teens and adults can develop food allergies, too.

More than 10 percent of adults in the U.S.—over 26 million—are estimated to have a food allergy, according to a new study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Lurie Children’s Hospital published in JAMA. The study surveyed more than 40,000 adults, and found that one in ten adults has a food allergy.

Surprisingly, nearly half of food-allergic adults developed at least one of their food allergies as an adult.

“We were surprised to find that adult-onset food allergies were so common,” lead author Dr. Ruchi Gupta, professor of pediatrics at Northwestern School of Medicine and a physician at Lurie Children’s. “More research is needed to understand why this is occurring and how we might prevent it.”

The study also found that almost twice as many people believe they have a food allergy but that the symptoms they report are not consistent with a true food allergy. Only half of adults with food allergy symptoms had a physician-confirmed diagnosis, and less than 25 percent reported a current epinephrine prescription.

Food allergy can trigger a life-threatening reaction. It is important to see a physician for appropriate testing and diagnosis before completely eliminating foods from the diet. “If food allergy is confirmed, understanding the management is also critical, including recognizing symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine,” said Gupta.

The study’s findings may have important health considerations for parents of teenagers.

With so many adults developing their food allergies in adulthood, adolescence may be a period when teenagers begin to experience symptoms that they did not previously have as children.

If you or your teenager notices a reaction after eating certain foods, pay attention to: (1) the symptoms you notice when you have a reaction (e.g., hives or a scratchy throat); (2) how often the reaction happens; and (3) the time between eating a particular food and the start of the symptoms.

The study found that the ten most common allergies were shellfish, milk, peanut, tree nut, fin fish, egg, wheat, soy, and sesame.

“Our data shows that shellfish is the top food allergen in adults, that shellfish allergy commonly begins in adulthood, and that this allergy is remarkably common across the lifespan,” Gupta said. “We need more studies to clarify why shellfish allergy appears to be so common and persistent among U.S. adults.”

If your family doctor suspects your teenager has an allergy, he or she will probably refer them to an allergist (a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating allergies) for further testing.

And parents? Take care of yourself the way you would your child.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.