Peanut allergies are one of the most common causes of fatal allergic reactions — but an early dietary intervention may lower children’s risk of death, according to a new study from King’s College London.

It’s a common misconception held by health experts that delaying an infant’s exposure to allergenic foods can reduce the risk of developing food allergies later in life. But last year’s Learning About Peanuts (LEAP) research trial revealed the opposite could occur. LEAP researchers recruited 628 children who were at high risk for peanut allergies between the ages of four and 11 months. Children were randomly assigned to either consume or avoid peanuts until the age of five, and by the end of the trial those who were exposed to peanuts earlier in life reduced their risk of peanut allergies by 81 percent.

The present study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is a one-year follow-up trial to LEAP, called LEAP-On. Participants were asked to avoid peanut products for a year to see if abstinence would trigger a peanut allergy. And overall, 18.6 percent of the children who never developed an allergy during the LEAP trial became allergic. But only 4.8 percent of those who were assigned to eat foods that contained peanuts developed an allergy after a year of avoiding these foods.

Based on the results of both trials, researchers believe early exposure to foods that contain peanuts may prevent high-risk children from developing allergies later on. Given the number of children with peanut allergies doubled between the years 1997 and 2011, researchers emphasize the importance of finding and developing early childhood interventions.

"If parents ask how to prevent allergy in their children, our current advice is to introduce the allergenic foods at four to six months of age," the authors wrote. "Once highly allergenic foods are introduced, regular exposure is important for maintenance of tolerance — children should eat these foods on a regular basis."

The research teams in each study all warn their results do not mean parents should feed their children foods that contain peanuts without a pediatrician’s notice, especially if children are at high risk of developing egg allergies or eczema. Future studies will be designed to establish whether the effects of early peanut intervention over the course of many years can maintain protection against allergies.

According to Food Allergy Research & Education, peanut allergies tend to last a person’s entire life; however, 20 percent of children with peanut allergies do outgrow them. Even trace amounts of peanuts can cause severe allergic reactions in children, which can make it difficult for children to eat prepackaged foods or off a restaurant menu.

These new findings come at a time when rates of allergies are steadily climbing, but it’s not the first evidence to test the theory of early introduction. Last year another study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal , demonstrated that gradually introducing small amounts of highly allergenic food reduces the risk of allergic reactions.

Source: Du Toit G, Sayre PH, and Roberts G, et al. Effect of Avoidance on Peanut Allergy after Early Peanut Consumption. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2016.