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Food allergies can be life-threatening and are always life-altering. Do you know how much food allergies cost the United States every year, and how much of that parents of allergic kids bear?

"When will people realize how serious food allergies can be?", a friend asked me recently. She had just been grocery shopping. The lady in front of her was complaining loudly that picking her child's packed lunch ingredients was so hard these days, because her daughter was in a nut-free classroom.

"Sure," my friend continued. "The five minutes it takes her to scan the ingredient list to ensure there are no nuts in her cereal bars just ruin the woman's life. Not packing peanut butter sandwiches is tragic. It's just like the anaphylactic shock my daughter has to deal with if she comes into contact with peanuts — even if they are airborne — and just like those calls to the emergency services, the ambulance rides, the time spent at the ER, and the way my daughter feels terrible for days afterward."

Food allergies are often misunderstood, as this incident illustrates. Yet, according to the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, one in 20 kids has a food allergy. Food allergies are more common in kids than in adults because most children will outgrow allergies to foods like milk, soy, nuts, peanuts, and wheat.

The peanut allergy my friend's daughter has is the most common, and accounts for 28.7 percent of allergies. Next up is milk allergy (22.3 percent), and then shellfish allergy at 18.6 percent.

If both parents are allergic to a certain ingredients, a child has a damning 75 percent chance of developing the allergy too. If only one parent is allergic, a child still has a 30 to 40 percent chance of ending up with an allergy. Allergies are often accompanied by diseases such as asthma and eczema. 

Severe allergies are life-threatening and require children and parents to spend a lot of their time being very cautious indeed. If it wasn't for accommodations made by others — like the nut-free classrooms the woman from the grocery queue complained about — children with severe allergies simply wouldn't be able to get out much. Despite accommodations, kids with food allergies and their parents know that they take a risk every time they venture out of the home.

Being hyper-aware of allergens in the environment is just one consequence food allergies can have, however. What about the economic impact of food allergies, both to parents and society? A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics looked into this and found that food allergies cost the United States around $25 billion per year!

The Cost Of Food Allergies

The study, led by Dr Ruchi Gupta from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, took a close look at 1,643 caregivers from November 2011 to January 2012. The goal was to find out how much allergies cost parents, and they looked at medical costs as well as out-of-pocket cost and the money lost due to the need to take time off work.

The three-month look into the life of families who are dealing with allergies was extremely revealing. There is no doubt that food allergies cost the healthcare system a lot of money, but individual families bear much of the cost. A special diet that avoids the allergen(s) is only the beginning. 

The total yearly cost was estimated to be $25.6 billion, or around $4,184 per child. Of the total cost, $4.3 billion was spent on direct medical care.

The rest, $20.5 billion, was shouldered by families with allergic children.

The study team further broke the cost down, and explained that hospitalizations accounted for the largest portion of direct medical costs, at $1.9 billion. Then you had outpatient visits to allergists, trips to the ER, and pediatrician visits. Diets designed around the food allergy and specialized foods ended up costing $1.7 billion annually, while the costs of lost labor totaled $773 million.

Are you and your kids free of food allergies? Many people wonder why food allergies are seemingly more and more prevalent, and some even question whether they exist at all. Parents of kids dealing with severe allergies say that they often run into people who are either completely oblivious to the possibility of food allergies, or simply don't take them seriously.

So — do not thrust cookies into the hands of children without asking about allergies. Do not assume allergy parents are exaggerating. Do not complain about the extra five minutes it takes you to select a nut-free snack if your kid is in a nut-free classroom. And above all, have some sympathy. Food allergies alter the life of everyone in a sufferer's family, and as you can see, they cost an immense amount of money.

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