Mystery rise in children suffering food allergies

Hospital admissions for food allergies among children have risen by 500 per cent in the last 20 years but doctors do not understand what is driving the increase.

Reactions to food can be severe, affecting the skin, the lungs or the gut, and are recognised as a major paediatric problem in the UK and other western countries. Overall, 6-8 per cent of children under three are affected by food allergies, a dramatic increase since 1990.

Experts say that even these figures underestimate the true incidence of the condition. To improve diagnosis and treatment, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) has issued draft guidelines for GPs which urge wider testing but warn of the dangers of unproven tests sold by practitioners of alternative medicine.

Adam Fox, consultant paediatric allergist at St Thomas' Hospital, London, and a member of the Nice panel, said there were several theories about the rise in allergies – but they remained theories.

They included homes that were too clean, leaving children's immune systems unexposed to bugs (the "hygiene hypothesis"), a lack of vitamin D from the sun, poorer diets, increasing use of paracetamol (usually in Calpol), and delayed weaning (the introduction of solid foods).

"All these theories have limitations – they have got holes in them. There are likely to be multiple reasons for the rise in allergy – no one theory can explain the whole of it," Dr Fox said.

Allergy to foods appears in two ways. There is the immediate reaction, such as when the response to eating a peanut is a sudden onset of wheezing. Skin prick tests and blood tests are the standard way of nailing the culprit food.

There is also the delayed reaction, such as when a child's eczema is made worse by drinking cow's milk. Elimination diets, in which the suspect food is removed for four to six weeks and later reintroduced to see if the reaction is repeated, is the standard – but lengthier – test.

Dr Fox said a study of 1,000 children living on the Isle of Wight showed that 33 per cent of parents believed their child had some reaction to food. Testing revealed that the actual number with an immediate allergy was much lower, at 5 per cent. When children with delayed reactions were included the figure rose to more than 6 per cent.

"This has been reported as evidence of over-anxious parents worrying unnecessarily about their children. But actually 6 to 8 per cent of all children in the UK with a genuine allergy is a huge number," Dr Fox said.

He added: "Most studies recognise that physicians are under-diagnosing allergy. The public may over-diagnose but we are not getting it right either. This is the importance of these Nice guidelines – GPs cannot just diagnose a child's asthma, they should consider if food allergy is a factor."

Commercial allergy tests sold over the internet and offered by alternative practitioners never deliver what they promise, Dr Fox said. Hair analysis, kinesiology and the "Vega" test, which uses a machine to measure electrical impulses through the body, should be avoided, the Nice guidelines say.

"There are plenty of guys out there who will take your money off you but the tests they offer are not scientifically valid. The crucial message is that there is no evidence to support them and GPs should not recommend them," Dr Fox said.

Possible causes of the increase

1. Poorer diets

Children consume more processed food and soft drinks than they did 20 years ago.

2. Lack of vitamin D

In the United States, children who live further north and are exposed to less sunlight have more allergies than those in the sunnier south.

3. Late weaning

It was once thought that introducing other foods early alongside breastfeeding increased allergies. This has been disproved. Doctors at St Thomas' Hospital are now testing whether introducing other foods late, at six months, increases the incidence.

4. The hygiene hypothesis

Children live in cleaner homes and are exposed to fewer bugs. Without the necessary "priming", their immune systems overreact to other agents, such as cow's milk.

5. Increased use of paracetamol

The standard response for a child in distress is to give them a dose of the medicine Calpol – but this could also be fuelling the allergy rise.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleTop Gear presenter and all-round controversialist is at it again
Sport
Aaron Ramsey celebrates after opening the scoring in Arsenal's win over Hull `
sport
News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

VIDEO
Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
food + drinkSprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
politicsLabour launches the 'completely hollow' Easter Clegg
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Last, but by no means least, is Tommy Cooper and the fez. This style of hat became a permanent trademark of his act.
comedyNot Like That, Like This centres on alleged domestic abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Oxegen in Ireland has been axed as promoters decide it is 'no longer viable'
arts + ents Promoters have axed the event as it is 'no longer viable in current form'
News
The troubled star is set to give fans the biggest insight into her life away from the headlines
people Star made the announcement during the final episode of the programme, entitled Lindsay
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Geography Teacher

    £130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

    Do you want to work in Education?

    £55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

    Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

    Day In a Page

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players