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Children with Peanut Allergies?

picture of peanut butter

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an estimated 6% of children younger than 3 years of age have some sort of food allergy. Food allergies in general are often inherited. A family history of asthma or allergies can increase the possibility of a person developing an allergy.

Approximately 30,000 cases of food allergy-related anaphylaxis, a serious life-threatening allergic reaction, are seen in our nation's hospital emergency departments. Symptoms of allergy may appear within seconds to hours after eating. The food most commonly responsible is peanuts. Peanuts actually are not a true nut, but rather a legume (same family as peas and lentils). The allergens in peanuts are similar to allergens found in tree nuts, however. Scientists do not know what causes a peanut allergy (or any allergy for that matter).

The average age for a peanut allergy diagnosis is about 14 months of age. According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), the number of peanut allergies has doubled in children from 1997 to 2002. Peanut allergy is less likely to be outgrown as a person ages than allergies to other foods, so it also is seen among older children and adults.

Why is there an increase in peanut allergies? The reason is not well understood, but there are several possible causes.

  1. An increasing number of people have chosen vegetarian diets, and nuts are considered a good protein source to eat in the place of meat.
  2. Food preparation methods used (sharing of equipment, contamination of raw materials) and inaccurate labeling of food products can lead to accidental exposure. For example, a company that processes peanuts might use the same machinery to process a non-peanut food product and if the machinery isn't thoroughly cleaned, traces of peanut can get into the other processed foods. An article written in the Clinician Reviews (Vol 21, No 12) states that there are hidden peanut sources in many chocolates and sunflower seeds that have been processed using equipment to process peanuts and peanut-containing and ethnic foods.
  3. Research shows that babies are exposed to peanuts while in utero and during breastfeeding when the mother eats nuts. Mothers who eat peanuts more than once a week during pregnancy and breastfeeding risk peanut overexposure to their children.

A food allergy involves the body's immune system. The immune system produces antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) that causes allergy cells in the body to release chemicals into the bloodstream, one of which is histamine. This histamine acts on a person's eyes, nose, throat, lungs, skin, or gastrointestinal tract and causes the symptoms of an allergic reaction. The immune system recognizes peanut proteins more easily than other food proteins and thus mistakenly believes that proteins in the peanuts are harmful to the body and an allergic reaction occurs. Reactions can be very severe even after small amounts are consumed and within seconds of eating or they can occur several hours later. Symptoms of allergic reactions to foods range from fairly mild to severe and include:

  • tingling or itching in the mouth, hives or itching,
  • swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat or other parts of the body,
  • wheezing, nasal congestion or trouble breathing,
  • a swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in the throat that makes it difficult to breathe,
  • abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting,
  • dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting,
  • shock with a severe drop in blood pressure,
  • rapid pulse

The foods or food groups that are considered potential major food allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), soybeans, wheat, fish, and shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp). According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), more than 160 different foods have been reported to cause allergies. Peanuts are the food that triggers the majority of allergies in young children, teenagers and adults who end up with anaphylaxis. All sources of raw, boiled or roasted peanuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, peanut flour, mixed or ground nuts, or any food product listing "nuts" as an ingredient are considered in a peanut allergy.

Foods that cause allergic symptoms should be avoided. Parents with children allergic to peanuts need to read food labels carefully when purchasing food and avoid having "trigger" foods in the house. To help reduce contact with peanut allergens, tell everyone who handles the food your child eats about the allergy, consider making your child's school lunches and snacks, and watch for cross-contamination when working in the kitchen preparing food. Also, work to develop a food allergy emergency action plan with school officials, care takers, and other family members. Parents and children need to know what to do if they begin to experience symptoms while, or after, eating a food. Recognizing early symptoms of allergic reactions, and being educated in using appropriate treatment measures will reduce the risk of a serious reaction. People should initiate immediate action and go to the nearest emergency department as mild symptoms can progress to more severe symptoms very quickly. Prompt administration of epinephrine during early symptoms may help prevent serious anaphylaxis. Some people carry the life-saving medication, epinephrine, with them at all times in the form of an auto-injector Epi-Pen.

There is no cure for food allergies, only avoidance of the foods that cause the allergies. Exposure to peanuts even in the smallest amount could mean life or death without proper management. For additional information on peanut allergies, please visit www.foodallergy.org , www.marchofdimes.com/pregnancy/nutrition_peanut.html , or www.fda.gov/consumer/food .

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