It seems as if peanut allergy stories are in the news more and more these days, especially when they involve a child dying after eating something as innocuous as a cookie.
"Peanut-free" classrooms and cafeteria lunch tables are becoming commonplace in schools. Food labels must now clearly state if a product contains any peanuts. What's going on?
According to the best data we have, the incidence of peanut allergy tripled between 1997 and 2008, and the numbers certainly haven't gone down since then.
Experts don't know exactly why peanut allergy is on the rise but some possible explanations include:
Whatever the reason, peanut allergy is on the rise and here to stay. So why all the fuss?
Peanut and tree-nut allergies cause the most severe food-induced allergic reactions. While other food allergies can cause rashes or hives or asthma, peanut allergy can be deadly.
People allergic to peanuts can have an extreme allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, where the face and breathing tubes swell up, causing severe breathing difficulties. Blood vessels also expand, causing a dangerous drop in blood pressure. Without swift treatment, anaphylaxis can kill.
Even scarier is the fact that avoiding peanuts is harder than you might think. It's not as simple as not buying peanut butter. Peanuts are in all sorts of unexpected places, like salad dressings (as peanut oil), baked goods, ice cream and many candies. And since just trace amounts can cause a reaction, foods prepared on the same machines that prepare foods with peanuts must be avoided as well. A smear of peanut butter on the table that accidentally mixes with the allergic person's food or get on their hands can be dangerous for the same reason.
Not only that: around half of the people who have a peanut allergy also have a tree nut allergy (peanuts aren’t actually nuts, they're legumes like beans and peas), making things like almonds, walnuts and pecans a problem as well. Many have additional food allergies.
Having a peanut allergy is life-changing. And because only about 20% are outgrown, it can be a life-long issue.
Some new injectable treatments are in the works to prevent severe reactions to peanuts, but they are still in the research stage. For now, if your child has a peanut allergy, the key lies in being vigilant — and being prepared. Here's what you need to do:
As with everything else that's important in your child's life, protecting your child from peanut exposure takes commitment and can't be done alone. But working together — you, your child, and your community — can help keep your child safe.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.