Peanut allergies are among the most common food allergies occurring in both children and adults, affecting about 0.6 percent of the American population, including about 400,000 school-aged children. Peanut allergies also seem to be on the rise, with some studies showing that the rates of children with a peanut allergy tripled in only a decade spanning between 1998 and 2008. While an allergy to peanuts is life-long in most cases, studies have shown that about 20 percent of children with peanut allergies will eventually outgrow them.
An allergic reaction to peanuts can vary, and symptoms may include facial swelling, itchy skin, hives or rash and asthma, and may cause cardiac arrest (heart attack). While fortunately not the most common food allergy, peanut allergies are the number one cause of food-related anaphylaxis, which is an unpredictable and life-threatening allergic reaction.
Peanut allergies are often confused with tree nut allergies, though tree nuts are similar to peanuts and the two are often associated with one another. Recent studies have shown that about 30-40 percent of people who are allergic to peanuts also have a tree nut allergy. It should be noted that tree nuts, such as cashews, walnuts and almonds, are biologically distinct from peanuts and most people suffering from a peanut allergy can safely consume tree nuts. However, there is a serious risk of cross contamination. Peanuts and tree nuts are often manufactured together, processed together or served together, making tree nuts a risky choice for most people with a peanut allergy. For this reason, many experts recommend that children with peanut allergies also generally avoid eating or coming into contact with tree nuts.
Foods to Avoid
Like other allergens, there is no known cure for peanut allergy. Antihistamines may be prescribed to treat the symptoms and in the case of an anaphylactic reaction an epinephrine shot must be administered. The best medicine, however, is avoidance of peanuts entirely. Peanuts are common ingredients in many dishes, and it’s important to know which foods may put an individual at risk. Some of the most common include:
- Mixed nuts
- Artificial nuts
- Nut meats
- Peanut butter
- Ground nuts
- Trail mix
- Peanut flour
- Cold- or expeller-pressed peanut oil
Peanuts are also often used in dishes where their presence is not as readily apparent. Some unexpected sources of peanuts may include:
- Baked goods
- Chocolate bars
- Egg rolls
- Enchilada sauce
- Sauces such as chili sauce, hot sauce, salad dressings, etc.
Because peanut allergies tend to be very severe, it is strongly advised that anyone affected by a peanut allergy carefully and completely read all food labels. Note that the “May Contain” warning section found on many labels is voluntary (not required by law), so it’s best to contact the manufacturer if there is any doubt about the presence of peanuts in a food item. Remember, even cross-contamination with the smallest amount of peanut may cause a reaction in some individuals. Peanut proteins may become airborne when being crushed, chopped or cooked, and people with a severe peanut allergy are advised to avoid cooking areas where peanuts may be present. This includes restaurants specializing in Asian or African cuisine, as well as bakeries. These establishments often use peanuts in their dishes, so there is a serious risk of cross-contamination, even if an individual orders a peanut-free dish.
If you notice symptoms of an allergic reaction in your child after exposure to peanuts, it is important to get him or her checked out by a healthcare professional right away. An official diagnosis will provide you and your child with access to important resources, such as a portable epinephrine injector, which can be a life-saving treatment in case of a serious allergic reaction. A peanut allergy diagnosis may be scary for both parents and their children, but like all other food allergies, it is certainly possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle with a proper diagnosis and strict, careful avoidance of the allergen.