Long considered a staple of my youth, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are not an option for many children who suffer from peanut allergies. There may be hope, however, for these kids. New research has revealed that by giving allergy sufferers carefully measured doses of peanuts, they eventually overcame their allergies and were able to eat nuts on a regular basis. Beyond the significance of being able to enjoy one of life’s lunchtime delicacies, is the indication that treated children are subsequently protected from an allergic condition that can have life-threatening consequences. Even more encouraging: Researchers hope that the treatment may extend to other food allergies as well.

The study, supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), marks the first time that tolerance to the allergen (i.e., peanuts) was measured in conjunction with key immunologic changes. In fact, at the beginning of the study, subjects could not even tolerate one-sixth of a peanut, yet after six months, they were consuming 13 to 15 peanuts before any allergic reactions set in. Children maintained daily therapy for several years, during which time they were closely monitored via skin, blood, and immunity tests.

The authors concede that it is not completely clear whether the children responded to the treatment or that they simply outgrew their allergies. More studies are necessary to address that question, though the initial results point to a potentially promising new therapy.

Researchers also stress that parents should not in any way try these experiments at home, especially in light of the dangers often associated with peanut allergies, which can be lethal. Furthermore, certain people are too sensitive to peanuts to even consider this therapy.

In this country, food allergies in general are on the rise. They affect nearly 3 million children under the age of 18, an increase of nearly 20% over the past ten years. Of those allergies, peanut allergies are the most common, affecting 4 out of every 100 children who have food allergies, and often appearing in the first year of life.

While most children outgrow allergies to other foods, children do not seem to outgrow peanut allergies. Unfortunately, the consequences of peanut allergies can be serious, with reactions ranging from minor cases of irritation to life-threatening circumstances. Even though a child may have a slight reaction at first, it could set the stage for it developing into a serious problem later in life.

Reactions to peanuts usually occur quickly after exposure, and can include the following symptoms:

  • hives or swelling of the skin
  • itchy mouth or throat
  • irritation of the stomach or rectum
  • difficulty breathing
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • diarrhea, cramps, or nausea

In serious cases, anaphylaxis can occur. Anaphylaxis is life threatening and requires immediate medical attention. It is characterized by constriction of the airways, a severe drop in blood pressure that can lead to shock, increase in the heart rate, and dizziness or loss of consciousness. Treatment includes an injection of adrenaline (epinephrine) and a trip to the emergency room.

If you suspect your child has a peanut allergy, speak with your pediatrician. For more information about food allergies, spend some time at the websites for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIH, and Peanutallergy.com.