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New studies ease peanut allergy fears

From Christy Feig

Peanuts are one of the most common food allergens.
Peanuts are one of the most common food allergens.

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CNN's Christy Feig reports on the progress in understanding peanut allergies and ways to treat them.
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(CNN) -- More than a million Americans live in fear of the peanut, apprehensive that their allergy to the nut will lead to a severe reaction or death.

"For those of us who have this strong of an allergic reaction, every adventure of eating out is scary," said Mac Hawley, a peanut allergy sufferer.

But several studies report progress in understanding the allergy and a new way of preventing an attack.

In one of seven studies published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers say liquid charcoal, which is often used when people ingest poison to block absorption, can also absorb peanuts.

"After you've eaten the peanut and you have an allergic reaction, you still have peanut in your stomach," explained Dr. Donald Leung, editor of the journal. "And so rather than allow further peanut to be absorbed and have an even more severe reaction ... drinking the charcoal will prevent the further triggering of increased symptoms."

Leung advised that parents of young children with the allergy keep liquid charcoal -- available in pharmacies -- in the home, in case of accidental ingestion.

This treatment offers hope to people like Hawley, who are severely allergic to peanuts. Hawley has had 15 severe reactions to peanuts -- five of them landing him in the emergency room. The worst reaction occurred when he ate peanuts he didn't know were in a salad.

"I had lost feeling and sight, couldn't move my muscles as the reaction progressed," Hawley recalled. "And the last thing I remember was I heard the emergency room doctor say to me 'Oh my god, we're losing him.'"

Peanut and other nut allergies affect a little over 1 percent of the United States population, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

An allergy is an exaggerated response by the body's immune system to substances that generally are not harmful. Symptoms may include swelling, hives, breathing trouble and, in severe reactions, shock or loss of consciousness.

Peanuts are the most common cause of anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can happen in minutes.

Other findings

Researchers have also learned some foods may not be as dangerous as allergy sufferers think.

Often when parents hear their child has an allergy to peanuts, peanut butter is banished from the household. But now doctors say that may not be necessary.

"At least with peanut butter, opening the jar or coming into contact with peanut better doesn't induce a severe reaction," Leung said.

This means parents may not need to be so nervous over unintentional exposure in school lunches or at restaurants.

But Leung warns that the findings don't extend to peanuts themselves. When someone is eating peanuts -- a passenger in a plane for example -- small peanut particles are released into the air, enough to cause a reaction.

Also in the journal was a report on a possible way to prevent peanut allergies from even developing. Doctors say an allergy can be avoided if babies aren't exposed to peanuts while their immune systems are developing, usually until about age 3.

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