Peanuts are the top cause of severe, food-caused allergic reactions. An allergic reaction to peanuts occurs when the immune system targets a harmless substance (peanut protein) and identifies it as harmful. The body then produces antibodies specific to the food and releases chemicals, including histamine.
One percent of the American population is allergic to peanuts, with 125 Americans dying annually due to fatal reactions to peanuts.
Why Peanut Allergies are on the Rise
The number of people affected by peanut allergies has increased two-fold from 1997 to 2002. While the exact cause of this increase is unknown, experts have put forth a variety of possible reasons for the spike in peanut allergies.
One hypothesis is that the process of roasting peanuts in the United States produces higher levels of sensitivity compared to the process of boiling peanuts that's practiced in other countries, like China.
Social factors also play a role. Our focus on cleanliness, for example in our homes, doesn't allow our immune systems to ward off parasites. As a result, peanut protein is often targeted as harmful.
One other possible cause for the rise in peanut allergy cases is that pregnant and nursing women who eat peanuts can pass peanut proteins on to their infants, which in turn leads to an increased risk in the infants developing the allergy.
Allergies and Other Types of Nuts
The peanut is actually not a true nut, but a member of the legume family, which includes peas, lentils, soybeans and lima beans. Having a peanut allergy doesn't necessarily mean a person will be allergic to other legumes or nuts because of the varying sensitivity level of the individual to the peanut protein found in different types of nuts and legumes.
However, tree nuts (like nutmeg) are not recommended. Not only is there a possibility of an allergic reaction, but many companies process their tree nuts in facilities with peanuts and/or use peanut oil to add flavor. Also, someone with a peanut allergy should have a separate allergy test in order to determine their level of sensitivity toward different types of food.
Peanut Allergy Symptoms
Symptoms vary from individual to individual.
There are three main categories of symptoms: skin (hives, eczema, red and swollen mouth); gastrointestinal tract (stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting); and respiratory (itchy, watery nose, sneezing, and symptoms associated with asthma, like coughing and wheezing).
Up to six percent of women develop a food allergy by the age of two, with children showing signs of peanut allergies as early as a couple of months old. Peanuts are not recommended for children under two years old.
The Severity of Allergic Reactions
Eighty percent of people have a reaction to peanuts that involves breathing problems and multiple areas of the body.
People with a severe peanut allergy can have a reaction to peanut traces left on a wiped counter top, cutlery or plate.
Known as anaphylaxis, this type of reaction is a sudden, severe allergic reaction that can be fatal. Such a reaction involves different parts of the body (skin, respiratory tract, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems).
Symptoms of anaphylaxis appear within minutes of eating the offensive food. Symptoms include itchiness, a metallic taste in the mouth, tingling, hives, swelling in the mouth and throat, and asthma. Anaphylaxis can also result in a coma.
Epi-pens (Epinephrine) is a drug used to treat anaphylaxis and should be used immediately when a reaction occurs or is thought to occur. Once an epi-pen has been administered, it is necessary to immediately go to a hospital for observation, as an allergic reaction could re-occur hours later. If you live more than 20 minutes away from a hospital, you should have two epi-pens with you at all times in case you need to re-administered the epinephrine after a reaction.
Outgrowing Peanut Allergies: Is It Possible?
While peanut allergies used to be considered permanent, recent studies have shown that up to 20% of children outgrow their peanut allergy. However this figure shows that a strong majority of peanut allergies are still life-long.
Allergy Relief: New Treatments and Prevention
At the Duke Medical Center, a desensitization (immunotherapy) study found that after administering a small, precise quantity of peanut flour to children every day—a dose that was slowly increased—the children's sensitivity to peanut flour slowly diminished.
However, experts urge against trying desensitization programs such as these in the home because they hold extremely dangerous risks.
That means that avoidance is, at present, the only proven treatment in fighting peanut allergies. People with peanut allergies must avoid not only eating and touching peanuts, but foods containing peanuts, including peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies and chili. They should also avoid people who are eating peanuts.
Checking labels carefully for peanut-based ingredients is also important in reducing the risk of a reaction to peanuts.
Peanuts and Pregnant and Nursing Women
While studies have not found a conclusive link between the maternal consumption of peanuts and a peanut allergy in their infants, experts warn that this is not sufficient evidence to prove that there is no risk associated with eating peanuts while pregnant.
Experts recommend pregnant women avoid a high consumption of peanuts.
On the other hand, a maternal history of asthma, peanut allergies, and allergies to foods other than peanuts significantly increases the risk of an infant's susceptibility to developing a peanut allergy.
There is a lack of information on infant sensitization to peanuts because of eating peanuts while breastfeeding. But women with either a personal history of or close relationship to someone with peanut allergies are advised not to eat peanuts while breastfeeding due to an elevated risk to their infants.