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Peanut allergies -- is the concern warranted?

  • Food allergy among children in the United States is becoming more common
  • 1 in 25 children have food allergies, according to the CDC
  • CDC: Number of U.S. children with food allergy jumped from 1997 to 2007
  • Bottom Line: Although only a few number of children die from peanut allergies, the reaction can be severe.
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Doctors still don't know why peanuts in particular seem to be allergens for many American children.

Doctors still don't know why peanuts in particular seem to be allergens for many American children.

Overview

Peanut allergies among children seem to be so commonplace these days, and it seems like they are on the rise, although currently there is not a vast amount of conclusive research on the trends and number of children specifically with peanut allergy.

Questions and answers

There's a lot of concern among parents about peanut allergies, and yet the number of people who actually die from them is relatively low -- fewer than the number of people who die from bee stings every year. Are we too worried about peanut allergies?

No, there is definitely a cause for concern.

Food allergy Specialist Scott H. Sicherer, MD, gives the main reasons experts are so concerned about peanut allergies compared to most other food allergies among children: It's a relatively common allergy to have among kids. The reactions tend to be severe. Whereas many childhood allergies go away as you grow, peanut allergies can stick with you for a lifetime. It's a hard food to avoid because it's in everything. So it affects quality of life significantly.

And, it appears that numbers are on the rise.

Let's take a look at food allergies in general among children, which is becoming more common over time, according to the CDC. In 2007, the number of children under 18 with food allergies in jumped up by 18 percent from 1997. Currently the CDC says that 1 in 25 children has a food allergy, an estimated 3 million children. So, it's generally on the rise.

Specifically as for peanuts, the truth is there are no great numbers here in the United States that track how many children have had peanut allergies over the years, but one survey, done over the telephone among random people, showed that the rate of peanut allergies among American children doubled from 1997 to 2002 (1 in 250 in 1997, to 1 in 125 in 2002). And in similar cohorts in the United Kingdom, peanut allergies have doubled as well, according to Sicherer.

Even though there aren't any huge government studies that show growing trends in peanuts, it seems like peanut allergies are on the rise just based on anecdotal stories.

What does food allergy do to your body?

When you ingest something that your body is allergic to, your white blood cells produce antibodies that prepare the immune system for the next encounter with the same allergen -- in this case, the food. The antibodies attach themselves to mast cells, which are special cells found in the tissues of the respiratory and digestive systems. The next time you eat just a small amount of the allergen, it triggers the mast cells to release histamine, and that causes nearby blood vessels to swell.

What is it about peanuts that makes them so allergenic for children?

No one knows the answer yet. Everything is still a theory. But one possible explanation, according to Sicherer, is that it could be how the peanuts are cooked.

In Asian countries where they eat peanuts, they are usually fried or oiled. But in the US they are usually roasted. So, it could be that the protein is heated in a different way than if they're just boiled or fried. Or it could be that the proteins in peanuts are more stable so they can last longer in the immune system, or that peanut butter's oiliness triggers more of an allergic response.

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A common theory is the hygiene or cleanliness hypothesis, which says that Americans subject themselves to multiple things that protect them from infections, such as antibiotics, vaccinations, and hand washing. In other words, many people are not being exposed to a lot of bacteria or infections that would keep their immune system busy. So, a not-so-busy immune system then attacks harmless things in the body because it doesn't know what else to do.

How should parents introduce peanuts safely into their children's diets?

To be on the safe side, avoid peanut and peanut products until your child is at least 2 years old,. If parents or their siblings have allergies such as hay fever, asthma and/or eczema, talk to your doctor because your child is at higher risk for peanut allergies and should probably avoid them until he or she's older.

Background
CNN spoke to Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, who said this:

While we have seen different statistics quoted, we would agree that there has been both an increase in the number of children diagnosed with peanut and other food allergies and increased reporting. Overall, there is now a much greater awareness of food allergies. The U.S. peanut industry takes food allergy very seriously. Our industry, in particular America's peanut farmers, has invested millions of dollars in finding both the cause and potential cures for peanut allergy. There is very promising research, as was outlined below, conducted by Dr. Wesley Burks (Duke University) into possible remedies as well as work in the U.K. by Dr. Gideon Lack, Kings College, London, that will shed light on whether avoidance of peanuts in young children is actually increasing rather than decreasing peanut allergy.

All About Allergies

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The information contained on this page does not and is not intended to convey medical advice. CNN is not responsible for any actions or inaction on your part based on the information that is presented here. Please consult a physician or medical professional for personal medical advice or treatment.