The Cost of Food Allergies

dollar-sign Food allergies in children continue to increase in the United States, up 50 percent from 1997 and 32 percent from 2007. Currently, 15 million people, most of them children, suffer from food allergies. The most common make up 90 percent of reported food allergies and stem from eight foods:
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • milk
  • soy
  • wheat
  • eggs
  • fish
  • shellfish
  Discovering your child suffers from food allergy can be distressing, and coping with your child’s food allergy can be a tremendous undertaking. Managing social interactions, school functions, meal preparation, protocols and emergency response plans, each designed to minimize reaction in case of accidental exposure to allergens, can result in physical, emotional and social costs for you and your child. Nevertheless, countless resources exist to help families navigate the rocky terrain and deal with the sentient costs associated with managing food allergies. However, the economic costs associated with food allergies are rarely discussed; even though the United States currently spends approximately $25 billion a year on issues related to food allergies. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, the economic costs related to childhood food allergies can be divided between medical costs and costs to families and caregivers, resulting in “significant direct medical costs for the U.S. health care system and even larger costs for families with a food-allergic child.”  

Medical Costs

Reactions to various allergens in food cause approximately 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 deaths each year. Medical events cost an average of $4,184 per child totaling approximately $1.9 billion in hospitalizations annually, in addition to $4.3 billion in direct medical costs (meaning costs of labor, supplies and equipment to provide direct patient care services). Other medical costs included those associated with visits to allergists and emergency department visits when hospitalization does not occur. While the economic medical cost is significant, it is far surpassed by the economic cost to families, as well as the emotional and physical costs felt by the family and allergy affected child.  

Costs to Families and Caregivers

In the case of most childhood medical illnesses, associated costs are largely borne by the medical industry. However, with regard to children’s food allergies, families tend to bear the brunt of those costs. Special diets, allergy-friendly foods and supplements alone account for an estimated out of pocket cost of $1.7 billion annually spent by families. Families also spend approximately $20.5 billion each year on other items related to managing food allergies, including medical co-pays, special childcare, medications, equipment and lost wages. Lost wages and “labor productivity” alone totaled $773 million, and occurred as a result of missed work, career sacrifices, and lost employment opportunities while caregivers accompanied children to medical visits. In fact, 9 percent of caregivers reported they had sacrificed employment possibilities because of their child’s food allergies; primarily, they restricted their career choices or declined a job. As such, families spend almost 90 percent of the nation’s total economic cost related to food allergies.  

What’s Next?

The JAMA Pediatrics findings were meant to illustrate the economic impact childhood allergies have on the health care system and families in the United States. However, given the disproportionate impact food allergies have on families, the study will likely be also used as a guide to create future public health policies, and research to develop effective food allergy treatments and cures. Focal points could include better medications for allergy treatment, additional policies to ensure safer environments for children while they are away from home, and health care provisions that consider the special needs of food-allergic children. Improvement in these areas can help kids remain healthy and reduce the emotional and physical costs of food allergies, as well as the largest economic cost to families: lost employment opportunities.    
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