LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Food allergies among our kids are on the rise. An estimated four to six percent of U.S. children under the age of 18 are now allergic to at least one form of food.
Odds are you know someone who has a food allergy. The eight most common food allergies in the U.S. are cow's milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, tree nuts and peanuts. Avoiding those can be difficult, but exposure can be deadly.
"When you look at the literature, it does say that the allergies are getting more severe," said Dr. Annette St. Pierre-MacKoul of MacKoul Pediatrics of Fort Myers. "We are hearing about them more on a regular basis."
From rashes and coughing, to breathing problems and life-threatening reactions, allergy symptoms are nothing to sneeze at explained Dr. St. Pierre-MacKoul.
"These can be devastating to children if they have an allergic reaction that goes to the category of anaphylaxis where it makes their mouth swell, their tongue swell, they stop breathing, that is a terrific concern," she said.
Fourteen-year-old Alec Hinton started having frightening reactions to peanuts in preschool.
"My arms would get really itchy. I would have hives. My throat would swell up a little bit and my tongue would get really itchy," he said.
His mom Sheryl told us that it was a terrifying time.
"Terrifying because you didn't know what it was... we had the EpiPen standby if needed; thank God we never needed it," she recalled.
In a study by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, childhood allergies have increased at least 18 percent since 1993, and the number of visits to a physician, emergency room, or hospital clinic for food allergy-related care has tripled in that time period. Doctors have several theories as to why this is happening.
"We live in a too clean a society. Where in the past, we lived with germs in the environment... and now with better cleaning, supplies and everything, we think that we don't have enough good bacteria because we're cleaning it out of our system," Dr. St. Pierre-MacKoul said of one theory. "The other theory that people are concerned about, is processed foods... Again, we're not being exposed to the same things we were in the past."
Regardless of the cause of severe allergies, we all feel the effects. Airlines, restaurants, schools and other places are forced to adjust menus and eliminate threats. And because of that, some kids with allergies are getting bullied by their peers in class; angry over restrictions limiting their favorite foods.
"It doesn't make you feel good.... all the other kids are eating like chocolate brownies with peanuts and I'm eating a sugar cookie," Alec recalled.
There is hope. Clinical trials are underway for various approaches to doctor-assisted immunotherapy for food allergies. Small doses of the reactive substance or food, like peanuts, are given to a patient under medical supervision. Over time, the body's tolerance increases.
It's a new approach to the centuries-old traditional immunotherapy, via allergy shots, successfully used to treat environmental allergens like cat dander, pollen, or bee stings. But deciding to put your child through this type of treatment is not an easy.
"Immunotherapy is injections. It's shots. No kid likes shots and it's shots on a regular basis. So it's a tough, it's a tough process to do," said Dr. St. Pierre-MacKoul.
But there is good news. Sometimes time is the cure. Recently Alec gave in to a sudden craving and ate his first peanut butter sandwich in more than 10 years.
"I've seen my friends eating it and i was like, 'I want to try it,' so I had it and now I'm obsessed with it. I love it," said Alec. "They just said I outgrew it."
More than one-quarter of kids with a history of food allergies outgrow their sensitivities by the time they're ten according to a study last year at Northwestern University School of Medicine. The news is a relief to many parents, like Sheryl.
"Huge, yes, definitely. No longer do we have to worry about restaurants and desserts... he freely now can eat whatever he wants and he loves it," she told us.
Pediatricians are also seeing a disturbing trend when it comes to allergies. They say more parents are diagnosing their own kids with allergies they may not even have and are pulling foods from their diet. That can damage the child's physical and mental health. The best bet? If you suspect your child has an allergy, check with your doctor who can guide you and help manage your child's health.