Nut Allergy: What Are the Symptoms?
In a Nutshell
Fifty million Americans suffer from allergies. Nut allergy is one of the most common types of food allergy in both children and adults. This allergy tends to last an entire lifetime, although about nine percent of children with a tree nut allergy and 20 percent of children with a peanut allergy eventually outgrow their allergy. Younger siblings of children with a nut allergy are at higher risk of being allergic to nuts as well.
Click next to learn more about the possible symptoms of nut allergy.
Types of Nuts
Nuts (also known as tree nuts), come in different varieties, including walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, and almonds. Although peanuts have the word nut in their name, they aren’t nuts. Peanuts are legumes and unlike tree nuts, grow underground. Although peanuts are not tree nuts, people with a peanut allergy have a similar allergic reaction as those with a tree nut allergy.
If you have one tree nut allergy, it is highly likely that you are allergic to other tree nuts as well. However, only about 25-40 percent of people are allergic to both peanuts and tree nuts.
Check Your Labels
Education is the key to managing your nut allergy. Carefully reading all food labels and learning about cross-contamination risk is imperative. As a requirement of the federal Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), all pre-packaged foods in the United States that use nuts as an ingredient must list the type of nut on the label.
For now, there are no rules requiring food manufacturers to list if their food has been contaminated with or processed on the same equipment as other food containing nuts.
Take care when eating foods that might contain the nut you’re allergic to.
Peanuts might be found in: beer nuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, baked goods, chocolate candy and sweets, chili, egg rolls, nougat, mole sauce, salad dressings, vegetarian meat substitutes, glazes, and marinades. They are commonly used in Asian, African, and Mexican cooking.
Tree nuts might be found in: pesto, nut extract, nut oils, cereals, crackers, cookies, chocolate candy, energy bars, flavored coffees, frozen desserts, marinades, and certain cold cuts such as mortadella.
Some alcoholic drinks may contain nut flavorings, which FALCPA does not require the manufacturer to list on the label.
The Immune System
When someone is allergic to nuts, their immune system mistakenly identifies nuts as a harmful substance. The immune system reacts to these substances, or allergens. The first time someone is exposed to a nut allergen, they usually don’t have any symptoms. Their immune system, however, has recognized the allergen as a threat and gets ready to fight the allergen the next time it enters the body.
When the allergen enters the body again, the immune system launches an attack by releasing chemicals such as histamine. The release of histamine is what causes allergy symptoms.
Mild skin symptoms of nut allergy often include:
- swelling of the extremities
- redness and tenderness
Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or loratidine (Claritin) can help relieve rashes and hives. Cold, wet compresses can also help soothe irritated skin.
Eye, Nose, and Throat
Allergies often affect the upper respiratory tract. Common symptoms include:
- stuffy or runny nose
- sore throat
- itching or watery eyes
Antihistamines can help relieve runny nose and irritated eyes. If the runny nose persists, try combining with a decongestant like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed).
Many food allergies cause digestive problems as the allergenic proteins make their way through the stomach and intestines. Digestive reactions usually take a few hours to occur after eating nuts. It is common to feel:
- stomach cramps
If the allergic reaction is severe enough, you might experience:
Due to the swelling caused by the allergic reaction, the airways can become constricted or close completely. Shortness of breath can turn into allergenic asthma, a condition in which the airways seize and restrict airflow. It can also cause anaphylaxis, a condition in which the throat swells, causing difficulty breathing.
According to Dr. Beth Corn, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, these symptoms fall on a spectrum. You could develop one of the symptoms, or you might develop them all.
Anaphylaxis is the most severe and dangerous form of allergic reaction. In anaphylaxis, the throat and airways swell and become blocked, making it extremely difficult, sometimes even impossible, to breathe. It can also cause other symptoms, including facial swelling, itchy skin, and confusion.
People whose nut allergy is severe enough to develop anaphylaxis should always carry an adrenaline injector, such as an EpiPen. An injection of adrenaline causes the airways to reopen, allowing you to breathe again.
A diagnosis is essential to treating allergies. If someone suspects that they have allergies, they should be evaluated by an allergist. An allergist can run a series of tests to find out what you’re allergic to. They can give you antihistamines to control allergy symptoms and an EpiPen in case you are at risk for anaphylaxis.
- DeFelice, M. and Stewart, S. (2011, October). Nut and Peanut Allergy. Nemours TeensHealth. Retrieved November 14th from http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/nutrition/nut_allergy.html
- Food Allergen Labeling And Consumer Protection Act of 2004 Questions and Answers. (2006, July 18). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved November 14th from http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Allergens/ucm106890.htm
- Peanut Allergy. (n.d.). Food Allergy Research & Education. Retrieved November 13th from http://www.foodallergy.org/allergens/peanut-allergy
- Peanut allergy: Symptoms. (2013, January 26). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved November 13th from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/peanut-allergy/DS00710/DSECTION=symptoms
- Tree Nut Allergies. (n.d.). Food Allergy Research & Education. Retrieved November 13th from http://www.foodallergy.org/allergens/tree-nut-allergy