Food allergies affect between three and four percent of adults and up to six percent of children, according to a recent report in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The number of people with food allergies has doubled in recent decades and the severity of allergic reactions is on the rise as well. One type of food allergy is of particular concern: peanuts.

While most common food allergies, such as those to cow's milk and eggs, remit in childhood, peanut allergies rarely do. Because peanut allergies are a lifelong affliction, there is a greater risk of a person eventually having a serious reaction. 

In fact, in the United States, peanut allergies are responsible for more emergency room visits than are any other food allergy. This is because those with peanut allergies are at a greater risk for allergy-related anaphylaxis than are those with other types of food allergies. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that may cause a number of symptoms including:

  • gastrointestinal pain
  • hives
  • swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
  • respiratory problems, such as shortness of breath and wheezing

In the most serious cases, coronary artery spasms may lead to heart attack.

In Children

According to a 2007 Duke University Medical study, the incidence of peanut allergies in children doubled between 1997 and 2002—from 0.4 percent to 0.8 percent. Researchers found that children born after 2000 had an average initial exposure to peanuts at twelve months of age, compared to just five years earlier when the first contact was 22 months old. 

Because peanut allergies can be life-threatening, researchers recommend that parents delay a child's first introduction to peanuts until they’re older and any allergic reactions are easier to manage. Eighty-two percent of children with peanut allergies also suffer from atopic dermatitis, suggesting that the two conditions may have similar trigger mechanisms, including environmental and genetic factors.

In Adults

The chances of a severe allergic reaction in adults is higher than in children. Young adults are at particular risk for severe anaphylaxis, according to a 2008 study published in The Lancet.

Causes

There is strong evidence that genetic factors may play a large role in the development of peanut allergies. A 2000 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that 82 percent of peanut allergies are capable of being passed from one generation to the next. 

As previously mentioned, children are also being exposed to peanuts at an earlier age, which leads to increased allergic reactions. Other factors implicated in the rise of peanut-related allergic reactions include increasing environmental exposure. That is: more people are adopting vegetarian diets and replacing meat with peanuts and tree nuts as a protein source and food preparation methods may result in cross-contamination.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a peanut allergy can range from mild skin rashes and stomach pain to severe anaphylaxis or cardiac arrest. Other symptoms may include:

  • sneezing
  • stuffy or runny nose
  • itchy or watery eyes
  • swelling
  • stomach cramps
  • diarrhea
  • dizziness or faintness
  • nausea or vomiting

Prevention

A 2010 expert panel on diagnosis and management of food allergies sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) did not advise women to remove peanuts from their diet during pregnancy and lactation. That’s because they found no correlation between a mother's diet and a child's potential for developing a peanut allergy.

The United Kingdom's Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency (DHFSA) offered the same recommendation, although it advised parents to refrain from introducing peanuts to a child during the first six months of their life. In addition, the DHFSA recommended that mothers breastfeed children for at least the first six months after birth.

Those with a family history of peanut allergies should only introduce a child to peanuts after consulting a healthcare provider. Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not giving high-risk children foods that contain peanuts before age three or four.

Adults with peanut allergies must be vigilant to avoid accidental exposure to peanuts or peanut-containing foods. Always read labels on packaged foods and be careful while eating in restaurants.

Statistics

The median age for a diagnosis of a peanut allergy is 14 months.

How Common Are Peanut Allergies?

Peanut allergies are very rare. According to the NIAID, a peanut allergy affects just 0.6 percent of the United States population, or 1.8 million people.

Deaths from Peanut Allergies

Fortunately, deaths from food allergies are extremely rare, although peanut allergies are responsible for nearly one half of the 150 food allergy deaths in the United States each year, according to the Duke University study.