Millions of Americans incorrectly think they have food allergies, study finds

By Ashley Welch

/ CBS News

Study: Millions misdiagnose food allergies

New research suggests Americans may be over-diagnosing themselves with food allergies. A study published in JAMA Network Open estimates that nearly 19 percent of adults think they have food allergies, but less than 11 percent actually do.

Experts say the discrepancy likely comes from misuse of terminology.

"Most people when they say they have an allergy, it's likely an intolerance," Dr. Tania Elliott, an allergist with NYU Langone Health, told "CBS This Morning." They have a headache. They don't feel well. They get bloated. They have stomach discomfort."

In reality, an allergic reaction is life-threatening.

"Ninety-percent of the time you're going to have skin symptoms," Elliott said. "Hives, swelling, itching, redness all caused by a chemical called histamine which is what's released from allergy cells when an allergic reaction occurs."

Milder allergies may not show noticeable symptoms for several hours. However, more dangerous allergies can lead to anaphylaxis, a severe and sudden reaction, that can occur within minutes of exposure. If not treated quickly, anaphylaxis can lead to death.

For the study, researchers from Northwestern University surveyed more than 40,000 adults from across the United States. Participants were asked if they had food allergies and for a description of their symptoms. They were also asked if they'd ever received a formal test and diagnosis of a food allergy by a doctor.

"While we found that one in 10 adults have food allergy, nearly twice as many adults think that they are allergic to foods, while their symptoms may suggest food intolerance or other food related conditions," lead author Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement. "It is important to see a physician for appropriate testing and diagnosis before completely eliminating foods from the diet."

The study also found that only half of adults with a "convincing" food allergy had a physician-confirmed diagnosis, and less than 25 percent reported a current epinephrine prescription.

"If food allergy is confirmed, understanding the management is also critical, including recognizing symptoms of anaphylaxis and how and when to use epinephrine," Gupta said.

The researchers say their data indicate that the most prevalent food allergens among U.S. adults are:

Elliott said if you think you have a food allergy, it's important to take the right steps to get a proper diagnosis.

"Make sure you see an allergy specialist," she said. "These folks have numbers of years of training to make sure they can hone in on the exact allergy that you have and then educate you on accidental ingestions."

First published on January 8, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ashley Welch

Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com

Twitter

Assailant sentenced for beating black man in Charlottesville

Daniel Borden was one of four charged with beating a black man on the day of a white nationalist rally in 2017

updated 8M ago

Russian lawyer in Trump Tower meeting charged

The case involving Natalia Veselnitskaya isn't related to the Trump Tower meeting with top Trump campaign officials

updated 10M ago

"El Chapo" hitman kept a soundproof "murder room," witness says

"He took me once to a house, where the floor was just white, tiled," the witness reportedly said of "Jaguar"

updated 25M ago

Kevin Spacey pulled over for speeding after court appearance

Kevin Spacey pleaded not guilty to groping 18-year-old in first criminal case brought against disgraced actor

updated 32M ago

Previewing Trump's prime-time address to the nation

It will be his first prime-time address from the Oval Office

1H ago

Russian lawyer in Trump Tower meeting charged

The case involving Natalia Veselnitskaya isn't related to the Trump Tower meeting with top Trump campaign officials

updated 10M ago

Previewing Trump's prime-time address to the nation

It will be his first prime-time address from the Oval Office

1H ago

Colorado’s Jared Polis to become nation's first gay governor

Polis's inauguration Tuesday could lead to big changes in energy regulation, health care and state-funded early childhood education

1H ago

4-star American general working on Qatar dispute resigns

Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps General and former head of CENTCOM, had been working to resolve Qatar dispute

2H ago

Former GOP rep. to be sworn in as Florida's new governor

New governor being sworn in as Republicans begin their third decade of dominating politics in Florida

3H ago

"El Chapo" hitman kept a soundproof "murder room," witness says

"He took me once to a house, where the floor was just white, tiled," the witness reportedly said of "Jaguar"

updated 25M ago

U.S. Navy veteran reportedly jailed in Iran since July

State Department won't confirm arrest of Californian Michael White, but he would be at least the 4th U.S. national locked up in the Islamic Republic

updated 45M ago

Saudis "satisfied" as young woman's asylum bid assessed in Thailand

Thai immigration official meets Saudi reps in Bangkok, as conservative Islamic kingdom dismisses teen's appeal as a "family affair"

3H ago

Turkey rejects U.S. request to spare allied Kurds in Syria

John Bolton set to depart Turkey without meeting leader in apparent snub over disagreements about U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters

4H ago

Kim Jong Un's China visit a "stepping stone" for 2nd Trump summit?

North Korean leader likely trying to sync message with his most vital ally ahead of another expected sit-down with Trump

6H ago

Kevin Spacey pulled over for speeding after court appearance

Kevin Spacey pleaded not guilty to groping 18-year-old in first criminal case brought against disgraced actor

updated 32M ago

Jackson endorses congresswoman's use of "motherf*****"

"I just wanna Wholeheartedly endorse your use of & clarity of purpose when declaring your (expletive) goal," the actor told Tlaib on Twitter

16H ago

Stars break gender norms at Golden Globes

When male stars hit the red carpet in sheer and sparkly tops, eye makeup and heels, it can be a beacon of light for trans youth throughout America

20H ago

Christian Bale thanks Satan at Golden Globes

After saying he portrayed a charisma-free man reviled by everyone in "Vice," Bale suggested, "What do you think, Mitch McConnell next?"

23H ago

Golden Globes 2019: Full list of winners

Glenn Close won best film actress in a drama for "The Wife;" Christian Bale won best comedy actor for "Vice"

22H ago

Amazon surpasses Microsoft as most valuable U.S. company

Stock market's recent turmoil has shifted the fortunes of America's biggest companies as Apple falls to No. 4

15H ago

Running blind

A rare condition that left Simon Wheatcroft completely blind by age 27 has not slowed the marathon runner down, as he tests new technologies he hopes will help the visually-impaired

Jan 6

Everything you need to know about CES 2019

CES 2019 is days away. Here's how to follow the show

15H ago

AT&T makes new predictions about technology's future

25 years ago, an AT&T ad campaign made bold predictions about the future. A generation later, the company has a new set of them

Jan 5

L.A. sues Weather Channel over app users’ data

The Weather Channel app may be sharing your location data with advertisers without your consent, according to a lawsuit by the Los Angeles city attorney

Jan 4

Millions of Americans incorrectly think they have food allergies

New research suggests many adults who think they have a food allergy actually have an intolerance

updated 6M ago

N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Hillary Clinton tout stronger abortion rights

The Democrats shared the stage Monday at Barnard College in Manhattan to urge the codifying of abortion rights in New York state law

12H ago

Income volatility is bad for your wallet — and health

Unpredictable changes in Americans' income are on the rise and associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease

16H ago

Is it a cold or flu? 5 questions to ask yourself

Here are some simple ways to help determine whether your illness is a cold or the flu

22H ago

22-year-old with deadly disease loses disability insurance

Social Security sent Megan Willis a letter saying her health had improved and that she was able to work. It was news to her.

Jan 5

PG&E stock price gets hammered as potential liabilities mount

California's largest power company dropped 22 percent on Monday amid reports it may file for bankruptcy

2H ago

Nissan's Carlos Ghosn tells Tokyo court he is "wrongfully accused"

The carmaker's former chairman proclaims he's innocent of charges of underreporting income and other financial crimes

3H ago

Government shutdown starting to impact air travel

Some airports had long security lines as TSA workers called in sick, while safety inspectors aren't on the job

3H ago

California bans gender in setting car insurance rates

Insurers collect billions from California drivers, but a driver's sex can no longer help determine premiums

4H ago

Amazon surpasses Microsoft as most valuable U.S. company

Stock market's recent turmoil has shifted the fortunes of America's biggest companies as Apple falls to No. 4

15H ago

Assailant sentenced for beating black man in Charlottesville

Daniel Borden was one of four charged with beating a black man on the day of a white nationalist rally in 2017

updated 8M ago

"El Chapo" hitman kept a soundproof "murder room," witness says

"He took me once to a house, where the floor was just white, tiled," the witness reportedly said of "Jaguar"

updated 25M ago

Kevin Spacey pulled over for speeding after court appearance

Kevin Spacey pleaded not guilty to groping 18-year-old in first criminal case brought against disgraced actor

updated 32M ago

CEO quits after woman in vegetative state gives birth; new allegations emerge

Bill Timmons quit days after baby was born to woman patient in vegetative state; CBS affiliate reports claim that he covered up prior incident

2H ago

Parolee arrested in deadly shooting at Southern California bowling alley

Reginald Wallace, 47, was taken into custody Sunday by police after three people were fatally hit in a Friday night incident at Gable House Bowl in Torrance, Calif.

11H ago