Parents are reporting more skin and food allergies in their children, a government survey found.
Experts aren’t sure what’s behind the increase. Could it be that children are growing up in households so clean that it leaves them more sensitive to things that can trigger allergies? Or are mom and dad paying closer attention to rashes and reactions?
“We don’t really have the answer,” said Dr. Lara Akinbami of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the senior author of the new report.
The CDC survey suggests that about 1 in 20 U.S. children have food allergies. That’s a 50 percent increase from the late 1990s. For eczema and other skin allergies, it’s 1 in 8 children, an increase of 69 percent. It found no increase in hay fever or other respiratory allergies.
Already familiar with the trend in food allergies are school nurses, who have grown busier with allergy-related duties.
Sally Schoessler started as a school nurse in 1992 in New York state, and didn’t encounter a child with a food allergy for a few years. But by the time she left school nursing in 2005, “there were children in the majority of classrooms” with the disorder, said Schoessler.
Food allergies tend to be most feared. But many food allergies are milder and something children grow out of. Skin conditions like eczema, too, can be mild and temporary.
It’s difficult getting exact numbers for children’s allergies, and the new report isn’t precise. The report compares answers from 1997-1999 to those from 2009-2011.
Parents were asked if their child had any kind of allergy in the past year.
The researchers did not ask if a doctor had made the diagnosis. So some parents may have been stating a personal opinion.
“We see a lot of kids in clinic that really aren’t” allergic to the foods their parents worry about, said Dr. Morton Galina, a pediatric allergist at Atlanta’s Emory School of Medicine.
But experts also said they believe there is a real increase going on, too.
One of the more popular theories is “the hygiene hypothesis,” which says that exposure to germs and parasites in early childhood prevents the body from developing certain allergies.
The hypothesis argues that there is a downside to America’s culture of disinfection and overuse of antibiotics. The argument has been bolstered by a range of laboratory and observational studies.
There could be other explanations, though. Big cities have higher childhood allergy rates, so maybe some air pollutant is the unrecognized trigger, said Dr. Peter Lio, a Northwestern University pediatric dermatologist.
Some suspect the change has something to do with how foods are grown and produced, like the crossbreeding of wheat or the use of antibiotics in cattle. But Lio said tests haven’t supported that.
In families with a history of eczema or food allergies, parents were advised to wait for years before introducing their children to foods tied to severe allergies. But professional associations changed that advice a few years ago.
The old advice “was exactly the wrong thing to do,” and could have contributed to some of the increased cases, Galina said.
The CDC report also found:
The mother of a 13-year-old girl, who is black, runs an eczema support group in suburban Washington, D.C. Renee Dantzler says roughly half the families in her group are African-American.
Her daughter, Jasmine, started getting rashes at 6 months and got much worse when she was 4.
“Her whole body would flare. If she ate something, you would kind of hold your breath,” Dantzler said. “And she’s allergic to every grass and tree God made.”
She began to improve about four years ago with steroid creams and other treatments, Dantzler said.
She’s now on a school track team, which means wearing shorts.
“She’s the only one on the team with long socks,” her mom said.