Anyone suffering with a food allergy knows that the condition is nothing to sneeze at. But this week, a new report commissioned by the federal government will be published stating that the majority of Americans who think they have food allergies actually do not.

According to The New York Times, 30% of Americans are under the impression that they have food allergies, yet the report found that the real number is much lower. “The true incidence of food allergies is only about 8 percent for children and less than 5 percent for adults,” the Times reports.

Now, the problem isn’t that Americans are hypochondriacs by nature (although that certainly is true with my family.) Rather, the issue is that testing for food allergies can be complicated and often inaccurate. Most doctors test for food allergies either by placing a small amount of food into the skin to see whether it produces some swelling or redness, or else they do a blood test to check for specific antibodies associated with these allergies. Yet, these tests are far from conclusive because our immune systems may be sensitive to certain foods even if we are not really allergic to them.

Diagnosing a food allergy is made even more difficult by the fact that the allergies themselves are often subtle and may change over time. The Times notes that we may have an allergy when we’re young only to lose it in later years, or we may not even become allergic to something until we become adults. And sometimes, when a particular food makes you feel sick, it may not be a sign that you are allergic to that food, but rather that you are intolerant of it, a problem which according to the Times, does not usually have anything to do with your immune system and is less dangerous to your health.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is currently working on a new set of guidelines for allergy testing. For now, the best option is still to consult a doctor if you suspect you have an allergy. You may want to ask your physician to consider giving you a test known as a food challenge, where patients are exposed to potential allergens gradually over the course of several days. The test is considered more accurate but it’s used less often because it takes longer and is more intensive.

Not only is it important to your health to know for sure, but living with a food allergy can also be costly if you have to make regular visits to the doctor and add specialty items to your diet in place of the foods you can’t have. While we could not find an exact number for food allergy expenses, Americans did spend $11 billion in 2005 on remedies and treatments for allergies in general. And the Times recently profiled one family that spends $400 a month on their son’s food allergies for “out-of-pocket medical bills, special foods and medicines,” not to mention the time and effort it takes to scrutinize their child’s diet. So obviously you want to make sure you aren’t just throwing away money treating a phantom ailment.

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