Remember the days when peanuts were considered to be perfectly normal party fare, without the hint of a health threat? Today, most parents and schools are well aware that they could trigger a lethal allergic reaction in susceptible people.
Food allergy occurs in around 1 in 20 children and in about 1 in 100 adults. The majority of food allergies in children are not severe, and will disappear with time. However, peanuts, tree nuts, seeds and seafood tend to cause lifelong allergies. Some food allergies can be severe, causing a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis that causes difficulty breathing, swelling in the mouth and throat, a sudden drop in blood pressure and, in some cases, loss of consciousness.
Even though the number of severe reactions to peanuts appears to be increasing it is still a very small problem. A UK study of 13,971 pre-school children, followed from birth to age six, found only 49 (0.35 per cent) had an allergic reaction to peanuts and only two had an anaphylactic reaction.
A South Australian study reported anaphylaxis occurring in 1 in 170 children, with over half of these cases occurring in the home.
That is why people with severe food allergies carry a strong antidote with them at all times. The drug is a synthetic version of the naturally occurring hormone adrenaline (epinephrine), which counteracts anaphylaxis. It comes in the form of a pen (EpiPen or Anapen).
There is also increasing evidence that food allergies may be a risk factor for severe asthma in children, with one study finding that 56 per cent of children with serious asthma also had food allergies, compared with just 10.5 per cent of those with mild asthma. These results suggest that life-threatening asthma attacks may be triggered by food allergies in susceptible patients with asthma.
The rising prevalence of food allergies cannot be due solely to increased consumption; in Asian countries, for example, nut allergies are rare despite high levels of nut consumption. Scientists suggest that reasons for the rise in peanut allergies may include exposure to allergens earlier in life as a result of early weaning, the use of nut ingredients in baby oils and products to ease sore nipples in breastfeeding, or the increased allergenicity of roasted nuts.
Unlike allergic rhinitis or asthma, there is no effective treatment for food allergies. All you can do is avoid the food in question, which takes a Herculean effort these days. Food allergens can be so pervasive that some people have had serious reactions simply because they walked through a fish market or kissed someone who had recently eaten seafood. For some, even inhaling the fumes from frying or steaming foods to which they’re allergic can trigger a reaction.
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