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Why Have Peanut Allergies Increased in the United States?

According to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization, about 6.1 million Americans have a peanut allergy. The group also reported that the number of children with a peanut or tree nut allergy has more than tripled between 1997 and 2008. Let’s explore what’s behind this rapid increase.

Why are Peanut Allergies on the Rise?

Currently, there is no agreed-upon reason for the marked increase in peanut allergies in the U.S. There are several plausible theories that could help explain the rise in numbers, however. These include:

Hygiene Hypothesis: This theory centers on the idea that Western culture has become so hygienic that children’s immune systems don’t develop as they should through exposure to germs and infections. The resulting weakened immune system may see certain foods as an allergen and react aggressively.

Delayed Exposure: Another hypothesis is that parents are delaying their children’s exposure to certain foods for fear of an allergic reaction. A 2015 U.K. study indicated that early exposure to peanuts may decrease a child’s chances of an allergy.

Better Detection: A final reason cases have increased may be that we are simply better at correctly diagnosing the condition. Allergy tests have become more precise in recent years and allergists are better able to pinpoint specific food allergies.

The Long-Term Outlook for Food Allergies

While some food allergies, such as milk, egg, wheat, and soy, may go away before adulthood, an allergy to peanuts or tree nuts is often a lifelong challenge. The Mayo Clinic finds that about 20% of people who develop a peanut allergy as a child may outgrow it. The other 80% will continue to experience sensitivity to peanuts, although the allergy’s severity will differ.

Currently, there is no cure for a peanut allergy. Research is ongoing, including studies that give children a small amount of peanut protein, gradually increasing the amount over time, in the hopes the children become less sensitive.

Living with a Peanut Allergy

The most common way to manage a peanut allergy is to avoid foods that contain peanuts. Other management options may include peanut desensitization in the form of sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) or Oral Immunotherapy (OIT). It is also important to be prepared in case you encounter any food item containing peanuts. An allergic reaction typically happens within minutes of exposure. Common signs include:

  • Skin reactions, such as hives, redness, or swelling
  • Itching or tingling in or around the mouth and throat
  • Digestive problems, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, or vomiting
  • Tightening of the throat
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Runny nose

A severe reaction is known as anaphylaxis. Peanuts are the most common food cause of this reaction, which is treated with an epinephrine (adrenaline) autoinjector and a trip to the emergency room. If you have a peanut allergy, you should always carry your emergency medications in case of a severe reaction.

Anaphylaxis signs and symptoms can include:

  • Constriction of airways
  • Swelling of the throat that makes it difficult to breathe
  • A severe drop in blood pressure (shock)
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness

Never assume a food doesn’t contain peanuts. Always read labels, and if it isn’t clear, avoid the food. Even foods that don’t contain peanuts but were processed in a facility with peanuts can be a danger.

If you are seeking treatment for asthma or allergies, contact Columbia Allergy, with convenient clinics in California, Oregon, Idaho or Washington. We take a patient-focused approach that views every person as an individual with unique challenges and goals.

This is not medical advice. Consult a medical professional to diagnose an allergy.

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