Why Food Allergy is a Priority for NIAID

Food Allergy Prevalence Is Rising

According to the CDC, there was an 18 percent increase in the incidence of food allergy among children under 18 between 1997 and 2007 in the United States. Though NIAID researchers have identified several risk factors for developing food allergy, scientists have not found a cause for this rise in food allergy prevalence.

Potentially Fatal Reactions Complicate Life

Living with food allergy can have negative effects on the quality of life of patients and their families because they need to remain vigilant about accidental exposures.  Allergic reactions to foods can range from mild gastrointestinal symptoms or skin rashes to severe reactions that can be fatal to children and adults with food allergy. The most severe reaction, anaphylaxis, can lead to respiratory problems, a dangerous drop in blood pressure and other symptoms. Swelling of the airways can make it difficult or impossible for a person to breathe and low blood pressure reduces the amount of blood going to vital organs resulting in a life-threatening medical emergency.

In order to avoid these episodes, people with food allergy must be vigilant about the foods they eat and the environments they enter. This is not always easy because sometimes allergens are present in foods one would not normally associate with them, such as peanut in the coating of a fruit-flavored jelly bean. Allergens can also cross-contaminate foods or objects an allergic person may eat or touch. Precautions such as thoroughly reading food labels, calling ahead to restaurants, or avoiding prepared foods at social events can be isolating, exhausting and expensive for those affected.

Food Allergy Research Teaches Us About the Immune System

Food allergy research broadens our understanding of the immune system, which encompasses numerous biologic structures and processes. Some studies focus on components of the immune system involved in food allergy, such as the production of antibodies to food allergens that are responsible for the initiation of allergic reactions. Others focus on the biological processes that occur during allergic reactions to food and cause the common signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction. Because so many other immune disorders involve similar components, discoveries from food allergy research may inform subsequent research for other disorders or help reveal more about how a healthy immune system functions.

Content last reviewed on April 19, 2016