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Are nut allergies more common than 20 years ago?

by Dominique Vanier, B.Sc.H., M.Env.Sc., on 24 February 2016, Allergies
nut allergies

If you have been wondering whether peanut allergies are more common these days, you are indeed correct. In every classroom, it seems that there is at least one student with a peanut allergy.

In fact, peanut allergies in children more than tripled between 1997 and 2008 in the U.S., presently affecting more than 400,000 children. From elementary schools to households, many environments are now “nut-free.”…

A rise in peanut and tree nut allergies may be explained by the hygiene hypothesis, a well-known theory in immunology. This hypothesis proposes that a lack of early childhood exposure to microorganisms, coupled with a modern-day increase in cleanliness and sanitized environments, may suppress the development of immunoregulatory mechanisms which are responsible for the efficiency of the immune system.

In other words, our hyper-cleanliness and avoidance of playing in dirt may be a contributor to an increase in nut allergies. And, it is of no surprise that higher socioeconomic status is linked to increased peanut allergies in children.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for a peanut or nut allergy – it is an inevitable response in those who are allergic. Peanut and nut allergies may be mild, inducing symptoms such as itchy skin or hives, or may be severe and result in an anaphylactic reaction. Such a response can be fatal if it does not receive immediate administration of epinephrine (via an EpiPen) and quick medical attention.

However, there is no cause for despair – there is much cutting-edge research showing novel advances in sensitizing the immune system to the offending proteins responsible for nut allergies. Known as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT), gradual exposure to the allergen under strict medical supervision can decrease the severity of the allergy over time. In a randomized controlled study, clinical desensitization to peanuts was observed in 70 per cent of participants.

Prevention

Prevention of a peanut or nut allergy is also entirely possible. We now know that pregnant, non-allergic mothers who consume peanuts and tree nuts during pregnancy significantly lower the risk of their unborn baby developing a nut allergy in childhood.

For those who do have nut allergies, there are multiple interventions that can minimize allergen exposure and, depending on the severity of the allergy, reduce allergy symptoms:

  • Avoidance of trigger foods. Peanut allergens are considered a priority allergen by Health Canada and as such, labels are required to indicate whether the food contains a priority allergen such as peanuts. Avoiding foods that contain peanuts or tree nuts is the single best way to avoid an allergic reaction.
  • Be educated. Peanuts and tree nuts are used as ingredients in hundreds of foods, from chili to candies to salad dressings. There are even non-food sources of peanuts, including medications, cosmetics, and sunscreen. If there is an ingredient that is unknown to you, it is best to avoid that food or product until investigating further.
  • Pack your own food and snacks. Bringing home-made food to school or work can avoid exposure to potential food allergens.
  • Obtain symptomatic relief. For those with mild (non-life threatening) allergies to nuts, you may find symptomatic relief from Allergy Relief or Sinna, which help to mediate levels of histamine and reduce congestion of the sinuses.
  • Share your experience. It is important to tell co-workers or classroom peers about the severity and potential of your nut allergies. By sharing your medical history, you can help minimize exposure to allergens in your shared environments.

If there is uncertainty whether you or your child have an allergy to peanuts or tree nuts, it is imperative to seek medical advice from your primary health care provider and undertake an allergy test.

References:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4178161/
http://acaai.org/allergies/types/food-allergies/types-food-allergy/tree-nut-allergy
http://www.webmd.com/allergies/news/20100514/peanut-allergies-in-kids-on-the-rise
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841828/
http://www.medicinenet.com/peanut_allergy/article.htm
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4178161/
https://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1793699
http://acaai.org/news/socioeconomic-status-linked-childhood-peanut-allergy
http://foodallergycanada.ca/about-allergies/food-allergens/peanuts/

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