With the prevalence of food allergies and intolerances spreading faster than a case of hives, providing proper diagnoses and safe food options is keeping allergists and food manufacturers busier than ever.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the occurrence of food allergies and associated anaphylaxis — a life-threatening rapid onset reaction — increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007.
Proteins from these top eight offenders are responsible for 90 percent of allergic reactions from foods: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
“We are definitely seeing more patients with food allergies in the last few years,” said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “It’s hard to quantify in our practice, but years ago we would see about one new patient with food allergies every two to four weeks. Now we are seeing a new patient with food allergies about two to three times per week.”
Some 12 million Americans now suffer from food allergies, according to Foodallergy.org. Eight percent of all children are allergic to some kind of food, based on a 2011 study by the Food Allergy Initiative.
Shock to the System
According to the FDA, each year in the U.S., it is estimated that food-related anaphylaxis events resulted in:
• 30,000 emergency room visits
• 2,000 hospitalizations
• 150 deaths
The cost of visits to the ER or doctor’s office can really add up.
David Holdford, an associate professor of pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University, co-authored a study that estimated the annual cost of treating food allergyreactions at $340 million to $510 million per year.
Depending on the allergy, risk and treatment are a lifetime issue.
Of three top food allergies — milk, eggs, peanuts — most people outgrow the first two by school age, but 80 percent remain at risk with peanuts, according to Fineman.
While most food allergies aren’t considered deal breakers when it comes to obtaining medical coverage, eHealthInsurance specialist Keith Mendonsa recommends examining plans carefully to keep costs to a minimum.
To begin with, diagnosing allergies can be expensive and tedious, with physicians administering a battery of tests.
When food allergies are severe, they can cause an anaphylactic reaction, which can be treated by administering epinephrine, sometimes obtained by prescription from the doctor. Use of an EpiPen (self-injectable epinephrine) can potentially ward off a trip to the hospital but the pen isn’t cheap.
Based on a small sample size of regional pharmacy pricing for the generic form of the EpiPen, a person without insurance would pay full retail price — around $200, Mendonsa said.
Those who have health insurance with prescription coverage and a deductible are likely pay a lower negotiated rate — closer to $75 — until the drug plan's deductible limit is reached, at which point it would be based on the plan's co-pay, which can range from $2 to $65 depending on the plan and the specific drugs prescribed. But because this drug likely falls under the "non-formulary" category, co-pay costs could be more volatile, Mendonsa noted.