Food allergies now affect around 4 percent of adults and 8 percent of children in the United States, according to the organization Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). Severe allergic reactions are on the rise as well. FARE also notes that the number of children hospitalized because of food allergies increased threefold between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s. One type of food allergy that’s of particular concern is peanut allergy.
While most common food allergies, such as those to cow’s milk and eggs, go away during childhood, peanut allergies rarely do. Because peanut allergies are a lifelong condition for 80 percent of people, there’s a greater risk of a person eventually having a serious reaction.
Peanut allergies have seen a 21 percent increase among children in the United States since 2010. Almost 2.5 percent of American children may be allergic to peanuts, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI).
- stuffy or runny nose
- itchy or watery eyes
- stomach cramps
- dizziness or faintness
- nausea or vomiting
There’s strong evidence that genetic factors may play a large role in the development of peanut allergies. A 2015 study of food allergies found that certain genes were present in 20 percent of the participants with peanut allergies.
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. More people are adopting vegetarian diets and replacing meat with peanuts and tree nuts as a protein source. Food preparation methods may result in cross contamination or cross contact.
According to a 2010 study, the incidence of peanut allergies in children more than tripled between 1997 and 2008, going from 0.4 percent to 1.4 percent. The median age for a diagnosis of a peanut allergy is 18 months.
A 2007 study found that children born after 2000 had an average initial exposure to peanuts at 12 months of age. Just five years earlier, the average child had their first exposure to peanuts at 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. This suggests that the two conditions may have similar trigger mechanisms, including environmental and genetic factors.
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 statistics published by the nonprofit group Food Allergy Research & Education.
Deaths from food allergies are extremely rare.
Among all food allergies, peanut allergy is the most common, and people with a peanut allergy are at a greater risk for anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that may cause a number of symptoms, including:
- gastrointestinal pain
- swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
- respiratory problems, such as shortness of breath and wheezing
Multiple tests are available to help diagnose food allergies. You may undergo a skin prick test, a blood test, or an oral food challenge. In an oral food challenge, you’ll eat small portions of the suspected allergen while your doctor waits to see how you react.
Allergy tests can be performed by your primary care doctor or an allergist.
Severe allergic reactions require immediate medical treatment.
People at risk of anaphylaxis should also keep an epinephrine auto-injector on hand in case of emergency. Brand-name options include the EpiPen and Adrenalick. In December of 2016, the pharmaceutical company Mylan introduced an authorized generic version of the EpiPen.
For more mild reactions, over-the-counter antihistamines may help decrease the symptoms, such as itchy mouth or hives. However, OTC antihistamines will not relieve respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms. It’s important to develop a food allergy emergency plan with your doctor and understand the best ways to treat a reaction, whether mild or severe.
Shop for OTC antihistamines.
A 2010 expert panel on diagnosis and management of food allergies sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) advised women against removing 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 offered the same recommendation. However, it also advised parents to refrain from introducing peanuts to a child during the first six months of their life. In addition, the Department of Health recommended that mothers breastfeed children for at least the first six months after birth.
Children with a family history of peanut allergies should only be introduced to the food after consultation with a healthcare provider. In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) endorsed guidelines that recommended children at a high risk of developing a peanut allergy be introduced to the food early. Foods containing peanuts should be added to their diets at 4–6 months.
Adults with peanut allergies must be vigilant to avoid accidental exposure to peanuts or peanut-containing foods. Also, be mindful of any foods containing tree nuts such as walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews and pecans; people with peanut allergies may also be allergic to tree nuts.
According to Kids with Food Allergies (KFA), around 35 percent of American toddlers with peanut allergies will also develop tree nut allergies. For those with severe peanut allergies, also be wary of cross-contamination and cross-contact. Always read labels on packaged foods and be careful while eating in restaurants.
Peanuts may be hidden in a lot of common foods, including:
- African, Asian, and Mexican foods
- cereal and granola
- other “nut” butters, such as those made from soy nuts or sunflower seeds
- pet food
- salad dressings
- sweets, such as candy, cookies, and ice cream
If you’ve determined you have a peanut allergy, work with your doctor to create a plan for avoiding exposure and treating an allergic reaction, should you experience one.
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