Food allergies 50 years ago were very rare, but now they are on the rise. Peanuts are one of the most common allergenic foods with serious life-threatening reactions. About one in 50 children are affected(in first-world countries). Research shows that peanut allergies among children have tripled from 1997 to 2008, but what is peanut allergy and its root cause?
What is Peanut Allergy?
For children and their parents, a peanut allergy can be terrifying and bring about constant anxiety about a reaction to the smallest trace amount of peanuts. Many believe that a food allergy will cause minor stomach upset or a rash, but they do not realize that for a large number of people, food allergies can be fatal.
An allergy occurs when the immune system of your body overreacts to a substance called an allergen. While your body would normally be fighting off harmful invaders, there is a mistake in the immune system that triggers an alarm when a harmless substance, the allergen, comes in contact with your body. A group of cells, called mast cells, release a substance called histamine to promote inflammation. This causes tiny blood vessels in your tissues to leak fluid, which causes the tissues to swell. This results in a variety of symptoms.
It is important to note that peanuts are not nuts–they are legumes. This is the same family as peas and beans. Peanuts grow under the ground while nuts grow on trees.
What Causes Peanut Allergy?
When your body first comes into contact with an allergen, you don’t get any initial symptoms of the reaction. The second time you come in contact with it, you experience a full allergic reaction. Most children appear to react to peanuts the first time they come in contact with it, however this is not the case. They may have come into contact with peanuts through their mother from:
- The blood barrier in the womb during pregnancy
- Breast milk from the mother who ate peanuts
Peanut allergy is so deadly because even the smallest amount of peanuts can cause a life-threatening reaction. Some people are so sensitive to nuts that even standing next to them and breathing air could start a reaction. Depending on the severity of the allergy, you may need to stand clear of the substance in trace amounts for a few feet.
Symptoms of Peanut Allergy
Allergic reactions to peanuts can be either mild or severe and sometimes life-threatening. The symptoms can start very quickly–within an hour and sometimes minutes.
Signs and symptoms of a mild reaction to peanuts include:
- A tightness in your throat
- Colicky pains in the belly
- Rash or hives
- Facial swelling
- Tingling of mouth and lips
For a more severe allergic reaction, symptoms can include:
- All of the above
- Sense of impending doom
- Wheezing and difficulty breathing due to an asthma attack or swelling of the throat
- Dilation(opening up) of your blood vessels, which includes
- Redness of skin
- Fast heartbeat
- Low Blood Pressure
A severe reaction is called anaphylaxis, which can impede your ability to breathe and properly get oxygen to your cells. If your brain lacks oxygen, you could lose consciousness. Some people die every year as a result of reacting to a presence of peanuts because they cannot get treatment quickly enough. If you think you may experience and severe reaction, you should obtain medical help immediately.
Treatments for Peanut Allergy
New research finds that exposing children with peanut allergies to very low trace amounts of peanuts may de-sensitive their immune systems, which will boost their tolerance to peanuts.(1)
The study involved allergic children aged 7 to 16 and they were given small doses of peanut protein powder that equaled the dose of about 1/70 of a peanut. The dose was increased gradually until, six months later, 91 percent of the children could tolerate the presence of 5 peanuts in their body with no reaction.
This type of immunization treatment appears promising, but it is not something to be experimented with under no medical supervision. The children in the study were exposed to peanuts in a hospital setting, where they could always get immediate attention if reactions occurred.
It isn’t known whether long-term side effects like inflammation of the esophagus can occur so more research into this technique may be needed. Nonetheless, the therapy could prove effect for eliminating peanut allergies or at least decreasing the risk of death among many people. If you need to eat 5 peanuts to die, that is much less risky and anxiety-producing than a reaction from breathing a molecule of peanut in the air.
Provocation Neutralization Treatment is Effective for Peanut Allergy
Desensitizing people to food allergies using a small amount of protein is similar to provocation neutralization(PN) and can be very effective. PN offers allergy sufferers permanent relief with no side effects and the success rate is about 80 to 90 percent.
During this practice, a trace amount of the peanut allergen is injected under the skin to produce a bump on the top layers of your skin and then it is monitored for reaction. If you have a positive reaction with symptoms like fatigue, headache or bump growth, then the allergen is neutralized with injections of the same allergen that go in your mouth.
How Peanut Allergy is Diagnosed
If your doctor suspects that you have a nut allergy, you may be given a skin prick test to confirm the allergy. For this test, a drop of peanut extract solution is placed on the arm. The surface of your skin is pricked underneath your epidermis. If a reaction occurs, it happens within a half hour.
- The reaction is considered ‘positive’ when the pricked skin becomes red and itchy. A white, raised swelling may appear around the red central area. This fades after a few hours.
- A reaction is ‘negative’ when the skin remains normal with no inflammation. You aren’t allergic to this substance.
- Taking antihistamines will dampen the response to the test, so avoid them for a day before.
You may also be given a blood test called a RAST or ELISA. These tests measure the amount of protein called IgE antibody, which is produced as a result of an allergic reaction.
You may also be given a diet where you are given foods to eat that may or may not contain peanuts and then you monitor your results over a long period of time. The elimination technique will help pinpoint your possible allergies. Once confirmed, the specialist may devise a diet plan to help manage your allergy.
It’s very important to note that alcohol intensifies an allergic reaction to nuts.