Why do so many kids today have food allergies? I don't remember any of my schoolmates having food allergies when I was growing up. Nowadays it seems like everyone's got a kid with one. What's going on? - Lori

Around 30 per cent of people believe they have food allergies. But when tested by allergy experts only about 5 per cent actually do. The difference is because of shoddy tests, confusion over what allergies actually are, and the medicalisation of everyday life.

Thirty years ago, people routinely put up with all manner of minor rashes and bellyaches. Now many go to a doctor expecting a diagnosis and, more importantly, a solution. Never mind that most common tests for food allergy are wrong half the time. We all want something we can fix, and a food allergy gives both doctor and patient something to focus on, a common enemy.

No one wants to hear an expert say, "I don't really know what's causing your bellyache, or how to fix it". Instead tell them they have a soybean allergy, and all of a sudden they have a problem that is understandable, solvable, and not their own fault. It's no wonder food allergies have taken off like wildfire.

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At the other end of the spectrum are folks with true and severe allergies, whose numbers are slowly growing for reasons we don't yet understand. These are often people with asthma, eczema, a family history of serious allergies, or allergies to multiple other things such as medications or insect stings. These highly allergic people are at much greater risk of sudden life-threatening allergic reactions. Although the number of fatal allergic reactions is actually quite low, around one in a million, we do know that most could be averted with the self-administration of adrenaline (via an Epipen, Anapen, or the like). These are the folks that really should be scared of food allergies.

There's also a middle ground, the approximately 5 per cent of people with true allergies causing troubling symptoms, who should seek the aid of an allergy expert, or allergist. And then there's the rest of us, who now need to find something else to worry about.

Gary Payinda MD is an emergency medicine consultant in Whangarei.
Have a science, health topic or question you'd like addressed? Email: drpayinda@gmail.com
(This column provides general information and is not a substitute for the medical advice of your personal doctor.)