Peanut Allergies: Recognize & Manage A Peanut Allergy

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 1:43pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a staple in many children’s diets. And no wonder: they’re cheap, packed with calories for growing children, and very tasty. Lately, though, the prevalence of peanut allergies is on the rise (statistics for sufferers doubled between 1997 and 2002). As a result, parents and health experts are on the defense against peanuts and any food that contains even a trace of them. Although a peanut allergy is very uncommon, it draws more attention than most allergies because when sufferers come into contact with even a tiny amount of peanut they can die. This doesn’t mean you should throw away your jar of peanut butter regardless of whether your child has a known peanut allergy. It does mean, however, that you should be aware of this growing problem.

Peanuts are not nuts

Peanuts do not grow on trees and are not true nuts. However, because roughly one third of peanut allergy sufferers are also allergic to another type of tree nut, they are often advised to avoid tree nuts (such as pecans, almonds, and walnuts) in addition to peanuts. So if peanuts are not nuts, then what are they? They are legumes, meaning they fall in the same category as soybeans, peas, beans, green beans and lentils. An allergy to peanuts does not automatically make one allergic to other legumes.

Who develops peanut allergies?

Although anyone can develop a peanut allergy, it is more common in people who suffer from asthma, hay fever, or eczema, or those who have immediate family members with these conditions. There is also discussion that pregnant and nursing women who eat peanuts might pass the proteins on to their infants, thus increasing the likelihood of the child developing a peanut allergy. Though the results are not conclusive, it is recommended that if a member of the immediate family has asthma, hay fever, or eczema, the mother should avoid peanuts and peanut products during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If you think your child is at-risk, then avoid introducing peanuts or peanut products until he or she is at least three years old.

How to recognize an allergic reaction

Allergic reaction to an ingested peanut can begin and proceed rapidly, occasionally ending in death within minutes. Therefore, it is extremely important to seek medical help immediately if you suspect an allergy and/or if your child experiences any of the following symptoms:

  • Flushed face, hives, swollen or itchy lips, mouth, eyes, or tongue
  • Tightness in mouth, chest, or throat
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing, drooling, wheezing, choking, coughing
  • Running nose, voice change
  • Vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, stomach pains
  • Dizziness, unsteadiness, sudden fatigue, rapid heartbeat, chills

A reaction occurring within 30 minutes and up to as many as six hours of contact with peanuts is likely to be peanut allergy. Your doctor can confirm a diagnosis with blood tests and/or skin prick tests.

How to manage a peanut allergy

If only it were as simple as eliminating peanut butter and other foods that clearly contain peanuts. But for those with severe peanut allergies, even trace amounts of peanut can kill. Therefore, avoidance is the key in managing a peanut allergy. This means not eating or coming in contact with anything that has even tiny traces of peanuts or peanut butter. This is easier said than done. Peanuts tend to leave residue on utensils and containers, which is enough to cause a reaction if they are used to prepare a meal for a peanut allergy sufferer. Take caution to make sure cooking and serving utensils do not contain traces of a peanut product. Label reading is also very important. Aside from the obvious sources of peanuts, such as peanut butter and peanut flour, ingredients such as peanut extracts, ground nuts, mixed nuts or natural flavoring may also indicate the presence of peanut proteins. Some of these less obvious, peanut-containing ingredients are often present in packaged cakes, crackers, chocolates, health bars, soups and salad dressings, just to name a few.

If you are at risk of a peanut reaction - be prepared

While research on this subject is progressing fast and furiously, there is currently no cure for a peanut allergy. Until there is, it is crucial that all peanut allergy sufferers have an action plan in place to deal quickly with an accidental ingestion of peanuts. Ask your physician whether an epinephrine injection should be carried and used in an emergency to counter a reaction. If this is the case, never leave home without it.