A peanut allergy is a reaction by your child's immune system to peanuts. Our immune systems normally respond to bacteria or viruses that attack the body. A food allergy occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly believes that a harmless substance (such as proteins found in peanuts) is harmful. In order to protect the body, the immune system creates substances called antibodies to that food. The next time you eat that particular food, your immune system releases huge amounts of chemicals, such as histamines, to protect the body. This is what causes the symptoms.
Peanuts are among the 8 foods that are responsible for most food allergies in children. The other foods include milk, soy, eggs, tree nuts (such as walnuts and cashews), wheat, fish, and shellfish. Many children grow out of food allergies to eggs, milk, wheat, or soy, but only about 20% of children will outgrow a peanut allergy. If your child is diagnosed with a peanut allergy, ask when your child should be re-tested.
Most healthcare providers warn not to feed your child shellfish and food containing peanuts and tree nuts, until age 2. If you have family history of allergies, it may be best to wait until your child is 3 years old.
If you think your child is allergic to peanuts or any other food, it is important to get a diagnosis from your healthcare provider or allergist. Symptoms can be severe:
With peanut allergy, it is more common to have an allergic reaction called anaphylactic shock. This is a serious reaction that is sudden, severe, and can involve the whole body. It can cause swelling of the mouth and throat, dangerously low blood pressure, and trouble breathing. This type of reaction is a medical emergency. It is treated with epinephrine (a medicine that is given by injection). Usually parents or caregivers of children who have severe allergic reactions carry their own shot kits, just in case of emergency.
An allergic reaction to a food usually starts within minutes but may be delayed 2 to 4 hours. It usually lasts less than 1 day. The more severe the allergy, the smaller the amount of food it takes to cause a reaction.
Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pecans and cashews grow on trees. About half of the people with peanut allergy are also allergic to these tree nuts. Ask your healthcare provider if it is safe for your child to eat other kinds of nuts.
The only way to not have a reaction is to completely avoid the food that causes the allergy symptoms. This includes peanuts and any food that contains peanuts. Many processed foods and restaurant foods contain peanut or peanut products. You will need to change the way you order, shop and prepare foods.
If you are breast-feeding, eliminate the food your child is allergic to from your diet. Food allergens can be absorbed from your diet and enter into your breast milk.
The first step is to learn to read labels and get familiar with ingredients that contain peanut products. Always ask about ingredients if you are not sure. Study the lists below to learn more about foods and ingredients to watch out for.
Ingredients to look for in food products
Pure refined peanut oil, if properly processed, should not contain peanut protein and should not cause allergic reactions. Unrefined oils may be called cold-pressed, unprocessed, expelled or extruded oils. These unrefined oils may have peanut proteins and could cause allergic reactions. If in doubt, call the manufacturer.
Hidden source of peanuts
Cross contamination is a problem when trying to avoid peanut proteins. It is common for peanuts to come in contact with other foods during processing and in preparation, even if peanuts are not part of the recipe.
Items that could be contaminated with peanut
When dining out:
Reading labels to avoid allergens has become a lot easier. Foods that contain milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, or soy products must list the food in plain language on the ingredient list. For example, food additive 322 (peanut). These possible allergens must be listed even if they are part of a flavoring, coloring, or spice blend. There are still some things to watch out for when reading food labels:
It is very important for you to know less common names and scientific names for food ingredients.
Your child can still have a healthy diet. The main nutrients found in peanuts are protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamin E, magnesium, and folate. There are many other foods that have the same nutrients. The challenge is not providing a healthy diet, but to keep your child from unknowingly eating foods that contain them.
You can bake desserts from scratch or from mixes that do not contain peanuts. Some ice cream and chocolate companies make products without peanuts and that have been processed separately from products made with peanuts. This is stated clearly on the label.
Treating a food allergy with drops or shots that contain some of the allergen is called immunotherapy or desensitization. This may allow those with food allergies to eat the food or have a decreased allergic reaction to the food. The process can take a few years. Studies have shown some success for treating peanut allergy in this way. Much more research needs to be done to know if this is a safe and effective way to treat food allergies.