Peanut allergies affect 3 million Americans
By: Joanne Smith, M.D.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, food allergies affect an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the United States, and that number seems to be on the rise. From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of food allergies increased 18 percent among children 18 and under. In teens and adults, food allergies occur in about 4 percent of the total population. The numbers are higher for children because some food allergies can be outgrown over time, while others are lifelong.
Eight types of foods account for over 90 percent of allergic reactions. They are: peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.
An allergic reaction is caused by a dysfunction in the immune system when the body mistakenly identifies the allergen as a harmful substance and attacks it. Food allergies differ from food intolerances, where the immune system is not involved. For example, a food allergy to milk is different from not being able to digest milk properly due to lactose intolerance.
In adults and children, one of the most common food allergies is an allergy to peanuts. An estimated 3 million people in the U.S. report having an allergy to peanuts or tree nuts. It was previously thought that an allergy to peanuts was lifelong, but research by the National Institutes of Health showed that about 20 percent of people with a peanut allergy eventually outgrow it.
Symptoms of peanut allergy can range from mild to severe and can start within a few minutes to a few hours of being exposed to peanuts or peanut products. A mild reaction might include: stomachache, runny nose, itchy eyes, hives, tingling in the lips or tongue. A more severe reaction can involve a tight throat, hoarse voice, wheezing and coughing.
In the most severe cases, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis may occur. Symptoms can include: problems breathing, swallowing, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, dangerously low blood pressure, swelling of the lips, tongue, throat and other parts of the body and loss of consciousness. If not treated, death can result.
Even a small amount of peanut protein can set off a severe reaction. If you think you are having an allergic reaction, get help immediately. Do not minimize the seriousness of the situation or wait to see if symptoms will get better.
If you suspect a peanut allergy, see your doctor or an allergist for diagnosis and treatment. Often reactions become more severe over time, so it is important to make an appointment after the first suspected incidence of an allergic reaction.
If you are diagnosed with a peanut allergy, your doctor will give you instructions for treatment. Generally, mild reactions can be treated with an antihistamine, such as Benadryl. Severe reactions, such as anaphylaxis, often require a prescribed shot of epinephrine. If you are diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy, your doctor will ask you to carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you at all times. If you need to use your epinephrine, seek emergency care immediately afterwards. You’ll need to be observed to make sure a second reaction doesn’t occur.
To prevent an allergic reaction, avoid ingesting peanuts, peanut products and food made in factories that use peanuts as an ingredient. Read the label; peanut is one of eight allergens with specific labeling requirements under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. Manufacturers of packaged foods sold in the U.S. containing peanuts must include the presence of peanuts in clear language on the ingredient label. If you are eating out, ask the restaurant staff about ingredients.
Smelling the aroma of peanuts does not cause an allergic reaction. The aroma comes from different compounds than those causing the allergy. Sometimes small particles of peanuts can become airborne and be inhaled. This can cause a reaction, as can having skin contact with peanuts or peanut products.
With all allergies, it’s important to note that symptoms can vary from person to person and from reaction to reaction. A person experiencing only minor symptoms in the past is at risk for having a severe, even life-threatening reaction. Most allergic reactions – including those to peanuts – are not life-threatening. But they do require diligence in avoiding foods containing peanuts and taking quick action if and when a reaction does occur.
Dr. Smith is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.