Food Allergy Misdiagnosis: More Common than You'd Think

Think you've got food allergies? You may need to think again. The majority of Americans who believe they're experiencing an allergic reaction may actually be suffering from some other ailment. This finding was revealed as part of a widespread effort by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to weed through the many inconsistencies and misconceptions that exist in defining food allergies and create some standardized guidelines for diagnosing this serious problem.

Allergy Misdiagnosis is Common

As part of this broader effort to determine allergy misdiagnosis, scientists reviewed more than 12,000 papers, studies and reports conducted from 1988 to 2009 that studied food allergy responses. They determined that only 72 of the over 12,000 projects actually met the true criteria for food allergies. This dramatic fact was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in May of 2010 and sheds new light on a topic that's been controversial in recent years.

To date, some estimates place the number of people with food allergies at 30 percent of the population of the United States. Yet according to the study, fewer than five percent actually have genuine food allergies. This calls into question common practices used by allergists to determine who is really prone to having an allergic reaction to food and drinks.

Many Discrepancies Exist

The scientists believe that a number of factors come into play to cause such a widespread discrepancy. For instance, many people who had food allergies as children may have outgrown them as an adult and not know it. It also seems that some people who test positive in an allergy skin test may not really be in any danger of having a serious allergic attack. Finally, food intolerance can cause similar symptoms to allergies but without involving the immune system. Other gastrointestinal reactions to foods can also appear quite similar, too. All these issues can contribute to allergy misdiagnosis.

Get to the Bottom of Your Symptoms

If all this makes you wonder if your food allergies are real, it's important to talk to your doctor and not attempt to diagnose yourself or experiment on your own with foods that could potentially cause a dangerous reaction. It can be helpful to keep a diary of what you eat and your symptoms to identify any patterns that exist. If your doctor thinks it's warranted, he may decide to try an oral food challenge test. This usually consists of blindly administering foods, including the one you could be allergic to, and seeing if you have an allergic response. Your doctor can also look at some of the other possible causes of allergy-like symptoms, which includes irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerance, reflux and a condition called eosinophilic esophagitis, which causes difficulty swallowing.


Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)