Instances of peanut allergies in the U.S. and other developed nations are rising sharply, experts report, giving this potentially dangerous food allergy the label “epidemic.” About 3 million Americans suffer from peanut and tree nut allergies, and that number is rising every year. In fact, between 1997 and 2008, the rates of peanut allergies in children tripled, according to a study from the Jaffe Food Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. It’s an alarming trend that scientists still can’t explain.
About Peanut Allergies
There are many types of food allergies out there, with eight foods in particular comprising 90 percent of all food allergy cases. They are: eggs, dairy, shellfish, poultry, tree nuts, soy, wheat and peanuts. Currently, about 8 percent of American children suffer from some type of food allergy. All of these food allergies appear to be increasing, experts report, but the rise in peanut allergies is particularly troubling. Unlike many other food allergies, peanut allergies are rarely outgrown and are often trigger the dangerous anaphylaxis response.
Food allergies, like other allergies, are an immune system response gone wrong, when the body reacts to harmless proteins, in this case peanuts, as harmful invaders. When the allergen is present, the immune system releases immunoglobulin E (IgE), antibodies that are specially attuned to the allergen, which in turn attach to mast cells, triggering the release of histamine and other chemicals. These chemicals are responsible for the wide range of symptoms experienced in an allergic reaction. In some cases, the mast cells may release chemicals in tissues that cause hives, itching in the mouth and throat, or a stuffy nose. In other cases, they can cause vomiting or abdominal pain. In the more severe cases, as the allergen enters the bloodstream through the digestive tract, the allergic reaction can lead to constriction of the airways and a dangerous drop in blood pressure—a potentially fatal reaction known as anaphylaxis that requires immediate medical attention. An allergic reaction can take place within just a few minutes up to hour or two.
In the 2008 study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers led by author Scott H. Sicherer, M.D. surveyed more than 5,000 American households, encompassing about 13,000 children and adults. This study is the first to use the same methods over a decade, matching the methodologies used in 1997. The result? The percentage of children allergic to peanuts and tree nuts increased sharply from 0.6 percent in 1997 to 2.1 percent—more than triple the number of cases. The number of adult cases remained the same at about 1 percent. Another, smaller study conducted in Olmsted County, Minnesota found a similar increase between 1999 and 2007, with peanut allergies among children rising from two out of every 10,000 children to more than six out of every 10,000 children.
Why the Increase?
While no one knows for sure what is causing such an alarming increase in peanut allergies, there are many hypotheses. One popular theory, called the hygiene hypothesis, theorizes that people in developed nations are living lives that are “too clean,” using antibiotics, cleaning wipes and hand sanitizers to prevent pathogens from interacting with the body where they would normally be fought off. The result is an immune system with little to do, leaving it more prone to overreacting when no threat actually exists.
Another theory has to do with the way food is currently grown, stored and processed. Peanuts, for example, are typically dry roasted in the U.S. “Roasting peanuts changes the sugar and makes the protein … easier for the immune system to attack,” states Sicherer. This is supported by the observation that nations known to process peanuts differently have fewer peanut allergies. Other theories on the rise in peanut allergies include the chronic lack of Vitamin D in many kids today and poor gut function. Even consumption of food and water containing the dichlorophenol-type pesticide has been linked to food allergies.
Most likely, the rise in peanut and other food allergies is caused by a number of different factors, coming together to create a sort of “perfect storm,” leading to the allergy.
Peanut Allergy Treatment and Public Policy
Unfortunately, there is no cure for peanut allergies, though a minority, about 20 percent of children, do manage to outgrow it in adulthood. Why they outgrow it, however, remains a mystery.
Sometimes, the body’s reaction to a food allergen is mild enough to be treated with a simple antihistamine. In many cases of peanut and tree nut allergies, however, the allergic reaction can be so severe that anaphylaxis occurs. In these severe cases, a shot of epinephrine, often carried in the form of an EpiPen, is required to halt the fatal reaction until the child gets to the hospital. Even with the help of the EpiPen, severe reactions like this are scary for all involved, and are the major driving force behind the changes in school and public policy.
It’s all over the news and in many public places today: signs banning peanuts from classrooms, airplanes, buses and even sections of the local baseball park. Why so strict? Peanut allergies are often so severe that children have been known to react to trace amounts. Peanut dust in the air, for example, or kissing someone who had just eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, has been enough to send a child with peanut allergies to the hospital. No one knows for sure why nut allergies in particular tend to be so severe, but the increase of this type of food allergy means an increase in children whose lives are put in danger. For school administrators and other public officials, the risk is simply not worth it.
No matter what the reason is behind the rise in peanut allergies, this modern trend means it’s important for everyone to become more educated on food allergies, and to be aware of the signs of an allergic reaction. After all, awareness and prompt action could save a life.