Peanut Allergies On The Rise, But Can They Be Prevented?

Peanut allergy is among the most common allergies and is also harder to outgrow compared to milk and egg allergies. In recent years, it may seem as though the allergy is affecting more individuals than before.

But as noted by a study from the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, this rising prevalence is not in our imagination. The findings showed that peanut allergies have tripled, affecting 1 in 250 children in 1997 to 1 in 70 children in 2008. 

"It really is almost an epidemic," says Dr. Scott Sicherer, who is the director of the institute. Even with anecdotal reports from school nurses, he tells CNBC that it is impossible to deny an increase in cases in recent years. This, he believes, suggests that an environmental factor may be at play.

One theory, known as the hygiene hypothesis, suggests that allergies in children have been triggered by too much cleanliness. Given the increase in antibiotic use and the reduced time spent playing outdoors, it is possible that the immune system becomes overprotected and starts attacking the wrong thing. 

While the connection is yet to be established, it does seem to hint that peanut allergies may be preventable to some degree. "Don’t bathe babies all the time," recommends Dr. Hugh Sampson, also from the institute. "Try not to wash off all the bacteria because some is protective."

Another theory focuses on the role of epigenetics in the development of the problem. Exposure to toxic pollutants, tobacco smoke, dietary fat etc. in early life, research suggests, could increase sensitivity and make individuals more prone to developing allergies.

Since it is hard to pinpoint a single cause or factor, what parents can do at this stage is to help their children build tolerance. Guidelines by the National Institutes of Health encourage an early introduction of peanut-containing foods to children around the age of four to six months.

Some studies have shown that this tactic could help reduce the allergy risk, although the long-term endurance remains unclear. If successful, it can certainly make a huge difference for an individual. People with allergies often experience social isolation, anxiety, fear, and restrictions which take a toll on their quality of life.

"When you're living with a food allergy, it's like you're living in a landmine situation," Dr. Sicherer adds. "Every meal, every snack, every party, every social activity — is that food that can hurt me going to be there?"

Typical allergic reactions involve swelling, changes in skin, nausea, itching, and other signs of discomfort. The most dangerous reaction, known as anaphylaxis, can cause the constriction of airways in the lungs. In turn, the affected person is unable to breathe and could die without immediate medical attention.