Millions grapple with childhood food allergies every day. One of the most prevalent and dangerous is an allergy to peanuts or tree nuts, such as walnuts, cashews or pecans. Now, new research suggests that the prevalence of peanut and tree nut allergies may be on the rise among children. Each year, more than three million Americans report allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, and such allergies are reportedly the number one cause of fatal allergic reactions among Americans. This is especially troubling since, unlike other types of food allergies, nut allergies tend not to be outgrown by children.
According to a nationwide study recently published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the prevalence of self-reported peanut or tree nut allergy among children climbed steadily over the past decade, rising from 0.6% in 1997 to 1.2% in 2002, to 2.1% in 2008. Allergy rates for adults, on the other hand, did not increase during this same timeframe. All data were gathered by phone surveys, with the 2008 survey building on and applying the same methods that were used for similar surveys performed in 1997 and 2002. A key caveat to this research is that all reports of allergy were self-reports, meaning that they were not verified with medical records or proof of a doctor’s diagnosis.
Peanut and tree nut allergies can have a big impact on quality of life. They present a constant source of worry for children and their parents, as they try to avoid any foods that might contain even small amounts of peanuts or peanut oils and that might trigger an allergic reaction. While close monitoring requires a kind of hyper-vigilance from both child and parent, the good news is that a small proportion of children (up to 20% of kids with peanut allergies, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network) will eventually outgrow this allergy.
In concluding the study, the researchers noted the need to develop much better prevention and treatment strategies. There are reports that the USDA is currently developing a low-allergy natural peanut that might help kids build up some immunity to peanut allergens over time, providing protection from small, accidental exposures to peanut. If and when such a therapy becomes widely available, it offers the possibility to mitigate the severity of inadvertent nut exposures among those who suffer from severe nut allergies.
In the meantime, it is important to exercise caution if an allergy has already been diagnosed, and to consult a physician if you have any concerns about a potential diagnosis. A registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in food allergies can help you learn how to plan a balanced diet, handle eating out safely and read food labels for possible hidden allergens. For more help with and support for managing a food allergy, visit the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network website.