Peanut allergy is more common than ever before; its prevalence has tripled in the past ten years. Approximately 1-2% of children in the United States have a diagnosed peanut allergy. Peanut allergy usually starts by age 2 with 75% of allergic reactions happening the first time a child has peanuts. Approximately twenty percent of people with peanut allergies can have a life-threatening reaction when they eat peanuts.
What causes allergies to foods such as peanuts?
When a person has a peanut allergy, the body’s immune system reacts to one or more of the proteins found in peanuts, triggering the release of histamine and other chemicals; the action of these substances on skin and other organs causes allergy symptoms. People at risk for peanut allergy are allergic people to begin with, and often have other allergic conditions such as other food allergies, asthma, eczema, or hay fever and usually have relatives with allergic conditions as well.
If I have a peanut allergy can I eat other nuts?
Peanuts are from plants that grow in the ground, unlike tree nuts which come from trees. Being from different plant families, peanuts are not the same as tree nuts (almonds, alnuts, cashews, etc.) However, studies show that as many as 25-50 percent of people with peanut allergies also have tree nut allergies. Allergy testing can tell you if you have allergies to tree nuts; if you are already able to eat tree nuts, then you don’t have allergies to those nuts you are already eating!
Why do peanut allergies get special attention?
Peanuts and tree nuts are the most common causes of severe life-threatening allergic reactions. Every year, it’s estimated 150 deaths are caused by allergic reactions to peanuts and nuts, despite best efforts to avoid exposure. Very small amounts of peanuts can cause reactions, although most symptoms are caused by the equivalent of one peanut kernel or more.
Because of the many ways a person can come into contact with peanuts, it takes careful planning to maintain a peanut-safe environment for people who are allergic.
What are the most common symptoms of peanut allergy?
Common signs of an allergic reaction to peanuts, which can range from mild to severe, are:
- Hives/itchy rash
- Coughing/wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
- Runny nose/watery eyes
- Tingling of the lips/mouth
- Tightening of the throat
- Stomach pain/nausea/vomiting/diarrhea
- Dizziness, feeling faint, passing out
What is anaphylaxis?
The most serious reaction to a peanut allergy is called anaphylaxis (an-uh-fa-lak-sis). Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis happens suddenly and involves dangerous changes to your breathing, heart rate, and other body functions. Anaphylaxis usually happens within seconds to minutes of exposure to an allergen and is life-threatening without emergency medical treatment.
How can I plan ahead?
If you have peanut allergy you should have a written treatment plan ready in case of an allergic reaction and make sure your teachers, camp counselors, friends (and others you may be with) know what to do in the case of an emergency. If you will be flying in an airplane, it is also important to tell the flight attendant about your allergy because if your allergy is severe, you could potentially react to another individual on the flight eating peanuts. Anyone with peanut allergies should carry a device loaded with an emergency medication called epinephrine that can be used to treat anaphylaxis as soon as symptoms set in. This device is called an “EpiPen®” or Adrenalick®, and must be prescribed by a health care provider. Instructions for using an EpiPen® can be found here.
How do I know if a food has peanuts in it?
Some foods (such as peanut butter, mixed nuts, and some candy bars) are obvious sources of peanuts and tree nuts, but some foods that contain trace amounts of peanuts aren’t as easy to spot. Peanuts may be found in baked goods, crackers, sauces, pesto, Asian foods, veggie burgers, nougat, chocolate, ice cream, cereal, granola, Worcestershire sauce, bouillon, and more. Since 2006, it’s a federal requirement that the Nutrition Facts Label on all packaged foods must list whether the food contains any of the eight most common food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Therefore, the label of any packaged food should indicate whether it contains peanuts and tree nuts. A food label listing allergens looks like this:
You must always check that a food is safe by carefully examing the ingredient list on the food label. Unfortunately, restaurant foods, foods sold at a bakery or ice cream shop, and foods prepared by other people don’t have labels. Avoid eating items that are unlabeled or that you have no information on. Whenever you are eating at a restaurant, be sure to tell the wait staff that you have food allergies and that none of the items you order can have peanuts or nuts. Also be aware that exposures can be caused by cross-contact, such as using the same knife to cut a peanut butter sandwich and then your tuna fish sandwich, or using the same ice cream scoop that has been contaminated with pistachio or maple walnut ice cream for your plain vanilla ice cream.
Some product labels state that the food “may contain traces of nuts” or is “manufactured in a facility that also processes nuts.” This means that the food may have come into contact with nuts during the manufacturing process. For example, items can become contaminated while in contact with shared equipment such as a conveyor belt. Talk with your doctor about whether or not it is safe for you to eat packaged foods with these advisory warning labels.
What is the treatment for peanut allergy?
There is presently no cure for peanut allergy. Avoiding peanuts and foods that contain peanuts is the only way to prevent reactions. Most people with peanut allergy have the allergy for life, but studies show 20% can resolve peanut allergy with time. If some time has passed since your last allergic reaction, your allergist may repeat peanut allergy testing and if it’s negative, you may be eligible for a food challenge. A food challenge is performed by an allergist in an office or hospital, and consists of medically supervised administration of small, increasing amounts of peanuts until a normal dose is tolerated. If no symptoms appear, that person’s peanut allergy is resolved and he or she can start eating peanuts. A food challenge is always done with a doctor present; it is never safe to do a food challenge at home.
Will there ever be a cure for peanut allergy?
There are several promising areas of research that may lead to treatment for peanut allergy. These include vaccines, oral desensitization protocols, allergen skin patches and other experimental approaches. Be optimistic that scientific research will pave the way for treatments and even a cure in the future! There may be support groups in your community available for you and your family to talk with others who struggle with similar challenges to having a food allergy.