You’ve seen it in the news: Peanut-free lunch tables and classrooms, even nut-free schools. Do you think that the schools are overreacting? What if the only thing your child will eat for lunch is a peanut butter sandwich? If your child suffers from severe peanut allergies, then you know that where they sit, and what they eat, for lunch is a life and death decision. If not, your perspective on allergies might be very skeptical.
Recent research shows that peanut allergies have an even greater impact than previously thought, on an even larger number of children. A study conducted in the pediatric respiratory clinic at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio found that of the 1,517 children admitted to the facility with a confirmed diagnosis of asthma, 11% are also allergic to peanuts. In addition, out of those 1,517 children, when tested, 44% were found to be sensitive to peanuts and 22% tested positive for a peanut allergy. Surprisingly, only half of the families with positive test results knew before the testing that their child had a peanut allergy.
Perhaps you thought that allergies weren’t an issue for you or your child, and it was asthma wreaking havoc with your child’s health, causing discomfort, suffering, and trips to the respiratory center of a hospital. Many people are not aware that asthma and allergic reactions have similar symptoms: wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing.
Allergies are caused by a histamine response to a specific food or substance. An antibody, Immunoglobin E (IgE), is produced by the immune system in response to the allergen. The body’s response is intended to protect the body from the allergen, leading to the symptoms of respiratory distress and/or hives, and sometimes causing anaphylactic shock, or even death. The new study shows that an allergic response, even one that is undetected, can trigger an asthma attack. This may come as a shock if an allergy is undiagnosed and has not caused trouble in the past.
For children and families who struggle with asthma that has been severe and difficult to manage or for children who do well on asthma medication but who continue to have asthma attacks, an allergy test could be valuable. An awareness of an underlying allergy that may be linked to asthma can help to reduce the number and severity of asthma attacks. Avoiding the allergen can significantly improve the ability to manage asthma.
Because there are trace amounts of peanuts in many foods, either because they are processed on shared equipment or prepared in the same kitchen in restaurants, those who have an allergy that typically doesn’t cause a response can benefit from careful reading of food labels or asking questions about food ingredients when dining out. Children who have both a peanut allergy and asthma also have a greater risk of severe asthma attacks.
Significant advances have been made in allergy testing. A panel can now be done with a simple blood draw which tests for numerous potential allergens, rather than multiple skin pricks that caused so much discomfort and anxiety for children in the past. Allergy testing panels range from the Basic Pediatric Allergy Panel that tests for reactions to 32 environmental substances and foods, including peanuts to an Expanded Food Panel (90 common foods), to a Comprehensive Combination Panel that tests for allergic reactions to 45 environmental allergens and 90 foods.
The number of children who suffer from peanut allergies has risen dramatically in the past 20 years and the impact continues to spread. Now we know that nut-free zones protect children from more than an allergic reaction. Increased awareness is more important than ever due to the link to asthma and the current methods of processing and packaging food. More and more, each individual family must take matters into their own hands, monitoring carefully the food we eat and becoming aware of our own reactions to specific foods.