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Practice Fusion · Feb 2, 2012

Analyzing race and ethnicity's role in allergies across the U.S.

You may be asking yourself “Why me?” as your allergies start acting up this spring. It might surprise you to know your race and ethnicity is part of the answer.

The chance of having an allergy varies dramatically based on race and ethnicity. Practice Fusion’s Research Division found that Caucasians, who have the highest rate of allergies in our data, are about 3 times more likely to have allergies than Asians, who have the lowest rate. We also found that African-Americans are about 80% more likely to have a peanut allergy than Caucasians.

Previous studies have also found a link between race and certain allergies. A recent analysis by researchers at Northwestern Medical School, for example, found a higher likelihood of sensitivity to certain foods in African-American children than in Caucasian children in a study of about 1,000 participants. We explored the relationship between race and ethnicity and common allergies in a sample of over 1.3 million medical records.

The fascinating thing about allergies is that what’s harmless for one person can be the trigger for a life-threatening allergic reaction in another. We looked at a wide range of triggers: medication, animal dander, seafood, dairy, shell fish, insect stings, soy, pollen, eggs, mold, dust and nuts. In general, the more common allergies after medications were for dairy, shell fish, pollen, dust and contact with animal dander. More unusual allergies were for nickel and baker’s yeast.

The data shows that non-Hispanics were about 66% more likely to have allergies than Hispanics. Caucasians were also much more likely to have an allergy than African-Americans or Asians.

Things get a little more mixed up, however, if you look at particular allergies. African-Americans are more allergic to peanuts than Caucasians. Caucasians are more allergic to animal dander and medication than non-Caucasians. Native Americans join them with their high chance of medication allergies.

The reason for all this variation remains unclear. Allergies are largely hereditary, but this doesn’t explain the increases in the incidence of allergies over the past 20 years. Doctors now wonder if factors related to our environment and diet actually play a larger role than previously thought. The data too could have some bias if differential reporting of allergies occurs by race.

Nevertheless, patients and doctors should be aware that these associations exist, especially for potentially serious allergies like allergies to peanuts. And hopefully more data will help us learn the underlying causes of allergies.