More and more children are being identified as having food and skin allergies, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, and schools are still struggling to figure out the best way to deal with them.
The CDC said this week that in children, the prevalence of food allergies rose from 3.4 percent in 1997 through 1999 to 5.1 percent in 2009 through 2011—in other words, about one in 20 kids have a food allergy now, a 50 percent increase from about a decade ago.
In addition, the rate of skin allergies went from 7.4 percent in 1997 to 1999 to 12.5 percent in 2009 to 2011. The good news: The CDC found no increase in respiratory allergies for kids, although it’s still the most common, affecting nearly 1 in 5 kids.
The reasons for the increase in food and skin allergies are unclear, the CDC told the Associated Press.
“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 released Thursday.
It’s also unclear whether the numbers reflect children who have actually been diagnosed with the allergies, or if parents simply suspect it. The CDC data is based on annual surveys of parents, not medical records, and as the AP notes, researchers didn’t ask if a doctor had made the diagnosis.
“We see a lot of kids in clinic that really aren’t” allergic to the foods their parents worry about, Dr. Morton Galina, a pediatric allergist at Atlanta’s Emory School of Medicine, told the AP.
The CDC findings show that parents in higher-income families were more likely to say their children had food and respiratory allergies, while eczema and skin allergies were most common among poorer families.
Galina told the AP that the new CDC stats may reflect a recent “sea change” in the recommendations for when young children should first eat certain foods. In families with a history of eczema or food allergies, parents were told in the past to hold off on introducing young children to foods tied to severe allergies, such as peanuts, milks and eggs. They changed that advice a few years ago after research suggested that allergies were more likely in those kids when the foods were delayed.
Meanwhile, schools continue to grapple with how best to protect children with allergies, especially severe food allergies. There have been some high-profile cases of students who died at schools after symptoms were triggered by their allergies.
Some schools, including those in Chicago, are now stocking EpiPens and there have been statewide proposals to require the same thing for all schools in other places. And the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights gave schools official guidance on how to work with these students last year.
The National School Boards Association issued its own comprehensive policy guide for schools about addressing food allergies at school in 2012. And the National Association of State Boards of Education is working on a new initiative to help guide school boards on developing policies to address food allergies, too.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.