Peanut Allergy: Is It Preventable?

Feb 26, 2015 By Deepa Gopal
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Did you know that more than 400,000 school-age children in the US suffer from peanut allergies?

People with peanut allergy can react to very small amounts; some may react just from smelling peanuts. In others, it can cause a life-threatening reaction known as 'anaphylaxis' that causes the air passage in their bodies to constrict (tighten). Such people have to be extremely careful and carry injections to counter the reaction. 

For this reason, some schools and daycares have removed peanut butter and similar foods from their menus to keep children safe. However, a new study released recently tells us we may have been wrong all along in how we treat children with allergies.

Peanut Allergy Explained

Normally, when our body encounters viruses and bacteria, it produces antibodies that directly kill the pathogens. The body can produce millions of different antibodies. 

In people with allergies, an antibody known as immunoglobulin gamma E (IgE) is released. This causes allergic reactions by attacking substances that are foreign, but which are usually harmless to most people -- such as nuts, foods, dust, plant pollen, or medicines. When IgE attacks, it causes special cells known as mast cells to release chemicals that irritate people with allergies.

Mast cells are found in large quantities in places like the nose, eyes, lungs, stomach, and intestines. As mast cells release irritating chemicals, the tissues swell and cause inflammation and allergies.

People who are allergic to peanuts can also be allergic to tree nuts such as almonds, cashews, and walnuts. While tree nuts grow on trees, peanuts are legumes that grow underground.

The Latest Study

In a study conducted by researchers at King's College in London, 600 children between the ages of 4 and 11 months were selected. These children were allergic to eggs or had eczema (a skin condition), which increases their risk for peanut allergy.

From this group, children who showed mild sensitivity to peanuts based on a skin test were selected. They were divided into two groups. One group was given small doses of peanut butter (or snacks), while the other group avoided it completely. It was found that from the first group, only 11% of kids developed peanut allergy by age 5, while the number was much higher - 35% in the second group.

Researchers conclude that introducing peanuts before the first year of a child's life can reduce their chances of developing allergies. Of course, the children have to be tested and under a doctor's supervision.