PEANUTSKENTUCKY (2/16/14) — Parents tend to be quite familiar with food allergies. In an effort to protect youngsters, schools have begun to crack down more regularly on foods that tend to cause allergic reactions, often placing restrictions on what children can bring in for lunches or snacks.

Parents and children who grew up around peanut and tree nut allergies are quite familiar with what triggers allergic reactions associated with such foods, and the potential side effects of consuming these foods. But those who are less experienced with food allergies may not know what to expect.

According to the Mayo Clinic, being allergic to nuts us one of the more common food allergies, especially among children. Many people who are allergic to peanuts are also allergic to other tree nuts, including walnuts, almonds and pecans.

As with any allergen, reactions vary from person to person. Some may experience mild symptoms, such as light rashes or swelling, while others may have severe reactions, including anaphylactic shock, which is characterized by shortness of breath, a severe drop in blood pressure, constriction of airways, and potential heart failure. According to Spire Health Partners, more than 3 million people in the United States have a nut allergy, and one-third of them will suffer from a severe symptom if they ingest nuts.

A peanut allergy occurs when your body mistakenly identifies peanut proteins as something that can be harmful. Just as your body might fight a cold, it releases chemicals from the immune system to fight off the peanut invader. The number of kids with peanut allergies has been increasing over the last 10-15 years, doubling in the last half-decade alone. It isn't known why some people are prone to nut allergies while others are not. However, Michael C. Young, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a practicing pediatrician at Children's Hospital, has a few ideas. Nursing mothers and very young children are eating more peanuts, particularly in the form of peanut butter, than ever before, something that Young feels could be causing a higher incidence rate of peanut allergies. Young also theorizes that better hygiene may play a role, suggesting that because children have fewer infections (due to improved hygiene and routine immunizations),their immune systems are more likely to target other things, such as foods and environmental factors, resulting in allergies.

Although peanut allergies are prevalent and can be dangerous, there is no reason to act rashly. Young notes that approximately 20 percent of children will outgrow their peanut allergies by the age of 6, and he advises that it is worth having a child retested as they get older to gauge if there have been any changes in the status of the peanut allergy.

When dealing with peanut allergies, it is important to separate myths from facts.

  •  Direct contact is the most common cause of a reaction. This results from eating peanuts or foods that contain peanuts. Cross-contamination,which occurs when peanuts unintentionally come into contact with other foods, is another common cause.

  •  Some people can have a reaction by touching peanuts with their skin. A rash may occur, but a very dangerous reaction will not result unless the peanuts enter the mouth or come into contact with the nose or eyes.

  •  An allergic reaction can occur from inhalation of peanut dust, such as peanut flour or ground shells during processing. Aerosol cooking sprays that contain peanut oil also can produce a reaction. It is important to note that the smell of peanuts will not induce an allergic reaction.

  •  Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York found that peanut proteins can be detected in some people's saliva after eating peanuts. A kiss could transfer some of the peanut allergens to another person.

  •  Sometimes an allergy is not really an allergy, but rather an intolerance to a certain food. A food intolerance does not involve the immune system. A person with a food intolerance can eat small amounts of the food with only mild symptoms, such as indigestion, rather than a severe reaction with a true allergy.

While being diligent in reading food labels and asking what ingredients are in prepared foods at restaurants is key for people with peanut allergies, so is avoiding potential skin contact. This means thoroughly washing areas where peanuts or peanut butter may have been and ensuring other children wash up after lunch.

Peanut allergies are foremost on the minds of parents and educators. Understanding what is involved in a peanut allergy can help everyone make informed decisions about protecting youngsters.

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