Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY 12:38 p.m. EDT September 17, 2013
Food allergies in children are not only increasingly common, they are expensive – costing an average of $4,184 a child each year, with $931 coming straight out of parents' pockets, a new study finds.
The study, published this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, is the first to add up costs for the estimated 8% of U.S. children with allergies to peanuts, milk, eggs and other foods.
The study, based on surveys of 1,643 parents, puts the total cost to the nation at nearly $25 billion a year. That includes the cost of visits to doctors, hospitals and emergency rooms, much of which is covered by insurers. But it also includes the costs of special foods and of parents missing work or even changing or quitting jobs to care for children.
"Kids with food allergies don't tend to have long hospital stays, but your expenses come in other ways," says lead author Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Parents "end up having to spend extra on foods to make sure they are safe," she says. Often, she says, that means relying on expensive specialty stores, such as Whole Foods, rather than cheaper grocery stores.
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The 37% of parents in the survey who said they spent money on special food spent an average of $756 a year on it. Other out-of-pocket expenses included medical bills and co-pays and the costs of everything from extra child care to special summer camps.
About 9% of parents in the survey said they restricted career choices or gave up, lost or changed jobs due to a child's food allergy. Those so-called "opportunity costs" were the largest in the survey, averaging $2,399 a year for each allergic child and more than $26,000 for families who made the changes. It's possible that those parents had children with the most severe allergies or histories of severe reactions, Gupta says. Such parents may fear leaving their children with others and may want to be available to go to "every field trip and holiday party," to monitor food, she says.
Gupta says expenses could be cut if more schools had adequate allergy control and response plans, more grocery stores carried allergen-free food and if research to find cures accelerated.
Funding for the study came from Food Allergy Research Education, a not-for-profit advocacy group.