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Food allergies may be on rise

Food allergies in American children seem to be on the rise, now affecting about 3 million kids, according to the first federal study of the problem.

Experts said that might be because parents are more aware and quicker to take their kids to a doctor.

About 1 in 26 children had food allergies last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday. That's up from 1 in 29 kids in 1997.

The 18 percent increase is significant enough to be considered more than a statistical blip, said Amy Branum of the CDC.

Nobody knows for sure what's driving the increase. A doubling in peanut allergies – noted in earlier studies – is one factor, some experts said. Also, children seem to be taking longer to outgrow milk and egg allergies than they did in decades past.

But also figuring into the equation are parents and doctors who are more likely to consider food as the trigger for symptoms like vomiting and breathing problems.

“A couple of decades ago, it was not uncommon to have kids sick all the time and we just said ‘They have a weak stomach' or ‘They're sickly,'” said Anne Munoz-Furlong, chief executive of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a Virginia-based advocacy organization.

Parents today are quicker to take their kids to specialists to check out the possibility of food allergies, said Munoz-Furlong, who founded the nonprofit in 1991.

The CDC results came from a door-to-door survey in 2007 of the households of 9,500 U.S. children.

When asked if a child in the house had any kind of food allergy in the previous 12 months, about 4 percent said yes. The parents were not asked if a doctor had made the diagnosis, and no medical records were checked. Some parents may not know the difference between immune system-based food allergies and digestive disorders, so it's possible the study's findings are a bit off, Branum said.

However, the study's results mirror older national estimates that were extrapolated from smaller, more intensive studies, said Dr. Hugh Sampson, a food allergy researcher at the Mount Sinai School of medicine.

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