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November 12, 2007

Food allergies among college students: Awareness and preparedness are low, UMHS study finds

Study also finds surprisingly high percentage of students with food allergies; researchers hope to expand study to more colleges

ANN ARBOR, MI – In one of the few studies ever to focus on food allergies among college students, University of Michigan Health System researchers have found that a surprising number of these young adults are not prepared to rapidly treat themselves in case of an allergic reaction and often are not vigilant about avoiding foods that contain allergens.

PeanutsWhile all people who have had an allergic reaction to food should carry a self-injectable device, such as an EpiPen or Twinject, just 22 percent of students who report having had a food allergy have such a device in their possession, the study found. These devices quickly provide a dose of adrenaline, which counteracts the potentially deadly allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

“Many of these students are accustomed to their parents being in charge of their health care. Now that they’re in college, they have to take on this responsibility for themselves,” says lead researcher Matt Greenhawt, M.D., a fellow in the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the U-M Health System. He is presenting the findings Nov. 12 at the annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Current college-age students are among the first wave of young people who grew up in a time of a rapid increase in the number of children diagnosed with food allergies and the accompanying awareness among the public about these potentially deadly allergies, Greenhawt notes.

While an estimated 20 percent of the overall population perceives at least one food allergy and avoids this item, more than half – 57 percent, or 293 out of 513 – of the people who agreed to participate in this study reported having suffered or possibly having suffered an allergic reaction to food. Most of these were allergies to milk, tree nuts, peanuts or shellfish.

Not all of those students had been diagnosed as having a food allergy, however; of the 293 respondents who said they’d had or may have had a reaction, just about half (140 people, or 48 percent) said their diagnosis had been verified by a physician.

Even so, the numbers are much higher than Greenhawt and his colleagues would have expected, he notes. That could be a function of the fact that the study has only been performed on one campus so far, he says. He plans to expand the research to other campuses in regions throughout the country.

More troubling than the numbers of students reporting allergies, though, is the high percentage of students who are not vigilant about the prevention and treatment of their reactions to foods, Greenhawt says.

  • In addition to the finding about low numbers of students possessing self-injectable devices, the researchers also found that only 17 percent of those who possess one carry it with them all the time.
  • Only 58 percent of the students with a physician-diagnosed food allergy say they will never eat any food known to contain their allergen.
  • Nearly half – 48 percent – said they are “not concerned” about exposure, despite having been diagnoses by a physician as having a food allergy.
  • High percentages of students report that their roommates and others are not aware of their food allergies.

Not all of the news was discouraging. Of the students who maintained self-injectable devices, most had been shown how to properly use it. And among students who always carry such a device, nearly all (15 of 17) had been diagnosed by a physician with having a food allergy. Both of these results indicate that physicians are having some success at teaching young people about the proper treatment of food allergies, Greenhawt says.

He suggests that colleges and universities consider labeling all of the foods in dining halls that contain one of the “big eight” of food allergens, which together account for about 90 percent of all food allergies: milk, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, eggs, soy, wheat or fish.

The findings in Greenhawt’s research are intriguing and warrant further study, says Robert Winfield, M.D., director of the University Health Service, the student health clinic at U-M. One of the reasons that many students may not want to carry EpiPens or Twinjects, or let their roommates know about the food allergy, is a perceived stigma. “College students in general don’t want to set themselves apart from others. However, this requires further study,” Winfield says.

Greenhawt conducted the study along with Andrew Singer, M.D., formerly of U-M and now of the Allergy and Asthma Affiliates of Knoxville. Funding came from investigator discretionary funds.

Meeting reference: 2007 Annual Meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Written by Katie Vloet

 

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