Feb 17, 2022
Why Have Peanut Allergies Increased?
6 minute read
There’s nothing better than going to a baseball game during peak season. But if you’re anything like us, you’re not there to watch the game. You’re just there to load up on ballpark roasted peanuts and almonds.
Here’s the thing — the humble roasted peanut business is at a bit of an impasse. That’s because food allergies are surging, and more people are allergic to peanuts now more than ever.
So exactly is that? What’s causing this seemingly random surge of food allergies among the world’s population, and is there anything we can do to stop it? Here’s everything you need to know.
Understanding Food Allergies
An allergic reaction occurs when your immune system perceives a foreign substance as harmful when it’s not. While your immune system usually does a good job attacking actual threats to your body like viruses or bacteria, some of the threats may be missed. That’s why pollen, dust, mold, and ragweed can cause reactions in some individuals.
This same thing can happen with food, and some people’s immune systems overreact to the proteins in certain foods, like peanuts. As a result, your body releases an antibody called IgE (immunoglobulin E), which serves the purpose of neutralizing the allergen.
IgE antibodies trigger the release of a chemical called histamine into your bloodstream. This is what causes allergy symptoms.
Food allergies are more common in children than adults, affecting four to six percent of children. With that said, food allergens can persist into adulthood, and in rare circumstances, they can sprout up with age.
The most prevalent food allergies that people are allergic to include:
- Tree nuts
- Cow’s milk
Symptoms of Food Allergies
While allergic reactions look different for everyone, there are a few commonalities. Food allergy symptoms tend to look different from airborne allergies from pollen or dust.
Symptoms of food allergies include:
- Hives or skin rash
- Difficulty swallowing
- Itchy mouth and throat
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, face, or other body parts
- Coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
- Stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea
- Lightheadedness or fainting
Food allergies can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis and that is why anyone with a true food allergy must avoid the foods that they are allergic to. Anaphylaxis occurs within seconds or minutes of exposure to an allergen and causes blood pressure to drop suddenly. Airways narrow, the pulse weakens, and the body essentially goes into a state of shock.
This condition requires a shot of epinephrine, as well as a follow-up trip to the emergency room.
Why Are Food Allergies on the Rise?
Peanut allergies, and food allergies in general, are on the rise. In fact, the number of children who visited the emergency room for anaphylaxis more than doubled from 2010 to 2016.
There’s no clear consensus as to exactly why this is, but there are a few working theories. Let’s walk through some of the more credible ones.
As your child develops, their immune system becomes stronger as it is exposed to a wider variety of irritants and substances. Many cases of peanut allergies occur in children of very young ages, with immune systems that are not yet fully developed. Some children eventually grow out of their peanut allergy because of this, but for most children, the allergy persists throughout their lifetime.
Family history also plays a role in the development of food allergies like a peanut allergy, and a child with a family history of allergies is more likely to be allergic than someone who does not have a history of food allergy.
Lack of Vitamin D
Another theory suggests that for our immune system to develop healthily, you need a good amount of sun exposure to receive adequate vitamin D. This mineral plays a vital role in immune function. Not to mention, it regulates the function of over 200 genes and is essential for growth and development.
Most populations worldwide are not getting enough vitamin D, and it’s thought to be an “ignored epidemic.” Over a billion people worldwide are vitamin D deficient.
For this reason, many believe that people’s immune systems are not strong simply because they have not been exposed to enough sunlight.
Dual Allergen Exposure Hypothesis
The dual allergen exposure hypothesis is a relatively novel theory that suggests why more individuals are becoming allergic to peanuts. Essentially, this theory states that exposure to food allergens through the skin can lead to allergies, but consuming food at an early age can actually result in intolerance.
For example, if a child were to avoid eating peanuts, yet they are still exposed to them in the environment, they are more likely to develop a peanut allergy. Instead, it’s thought that children should eat small amounts of these foods at a young age, as this might help them become tolerant to them.
Of course, no one should consume food that they think they might be allergic to without medical supervision. Speak with an allergist if you’re looking for some options to help you or your child possibly overcome their food allergies.
Can You Treat Peanut Allergies?
While peanut allergies are constantly on the rise, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. Some novel treatment methods might be able to help eliminate, or at least minimize the symptoms, of your food allergy.
In fact, peanuts are the only food the FDA has approved a treatment for, it is not a cure but can help people tolerate some peanut. It’s a drug called Palforzia, and it’s administered in gradually increasing doses over a period of time. It’s a form of allergy immunotherapy that focuses on exposing your immune system to small amounts of an allergen over an extended period so your body can develop a tolerance.
This form of treatment is a good sign, as it might reverse the upward trend in food allergy prevalence throughout the world.
Finally, some people can outgrow their peanut allergies once they reach adulthood without any type of intervention. Twenty percent of children can grow out of their peanut allergies by the time they hit age 16.
Preventing Peanut Allergies
You may be able to help your child prevent developing a peanut allergy by exposing them to peanuts early on. New science-based recommendations suggest that you should introduce your child to peanuts from four months of age onward to help them gain tolerance to peanuts and avoid an allergy in the future.
Once you know that your child can ingest peanut products safely, you should continue to feed them moderate amounts of peanut products regularly in order to continue preventing the development of an allergy. This is especially important for children who are at an increased risk of a peanut allergy, like children with a family history of peanut allergies. For high risk children, around two grams of peanut products should be fed to your child three times a week.
In cases of high risk children, it is critical for you to speak with your pediatrician before introducing your child to peanuts and peanut products. After your pediatrician has informed you of the best and safest method of doing this, you may be advised to start giving your child peanuts when they are just four months old.
Low risk babies are those who do not struggle with eczema and show no signs of food allergies. For low risk children, it may be enough to give your baby some peanuts every now and then alongside their regular meals or snacks once they start to eat solid foods.
Medium risk babies are those who have mild eczema, and this category of children will likely benefit from being given peanut products early on and consistently. In the case of a medium risk baby, early introduction of peanuts and peanut products may be able to significantly reduce your child’s likelihood of eventually developing a peanut allergy.
Food For Thought
Food allergies, in general, have been on the rise in recent years, and peanuts are among one of the most common food allergens across the globe. While there’s not a clear consensus on why there’s been a surge, there are a few working theories.
Additionally, vitamin D deficiency is on the rise despite this vitamin being essential for immune function to build a defense against allergies. And a dual allergen theory suggests that children who are not exposed to ingestion of peanuts at a young age, yet are exposed to it through the skin, are at risk of developing an allergy.
Regardless, having a food allergy can impede your daily life. Ready to get some relief? Your online allergist is ready to see you. Take your free allergy consultation with Cleared to see how we can help you live a clearer life.
Dr. Payel Gupta
Medically reviewed by Dr. Payel Gupta
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