Peanut allergy: what it is and why it is on the increase.

A peanut allergy is a type of food allergy triggered by contact with peanuts and occurs when the body perceives peanut proteins as something harmful.  Chemicals are released into the system to fight off these proteins, triggering an allergic reaction. Reactions usually occur within minutes of exposure, and can be relatively mild or very severe depending on the individual and the level of exposure to the allergen. For some sufferers, exposure to even the smallest amounts of peanuts can cause a very serious reaction.

Sufferers can experience a range of symptoms like a runny nose, coughing and wheezing; itchy, watery eyes; skin reactions like spots, hives and swelling; diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea; through to a severe, life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction and requires immediate medical treatment. Often symptoms can initially be mild but can rapidly worsen to the point of medical emergency.

Cross Contamination of Allergens

Reactions can occur when sufferers are exposed either directly or indirectly to peanuts. Consuming peanuts or anything containing peanuts is the most common cause of peanut allergy reaction. Direct skin contact with peanuts can also trigger a reaction. More difficult to avoid, is indirect contact with peanuts. This usually happens when food is cross contaminated, coming into contact with peanuts during the processing and handling stage. In some cases, a reaction may occur if the sufferer inhales the allergen, peanut flour and cooking spray being example sources.

Thankfully, manufacturers in Australia are legally obligated to label packaging if their products may contain traces of nuts, so consumers can make more informed decisions. However living with a peanut allergy is very challenging, and even the most vigilant of sufferers can still be exposed to the allergen and risk a serious reaction.

People who suffer from other allergic conditions like hay fever, asthma and eczema are more likely to have a peanut allergy. Milk, eggs, shellfish and other nuts are other common types of foods that may cause a reaction.

Peanut allergy is one of the most prevalent types of food allergies and is becoming increasingly common. Allergies can develop at any stage of life, but is most common in children aged five years or younger, and even young babies can develop symptoms of food allergy.2

Peanut Allergy in Australia

In Australia, almost three in every 100 children have a peanut allergy.1 Due to the seriousness of the problem and increasing numbers of sufferers, more and more schools are having to declare themselves ‘nut free zones’ to protect the safety of children with allergies. This can be a source of stress and anxiety for parents who aren’t sure of what is safe to pack in their child’s school lunch box. For parents of a child with an allergy, they are on constant alert as to what their child may consume both inside and outside of the home, and even if their own child doesn’t suffer from the allergy, they could share food with a child who does, resulting in potentially dire consequences.

Studies have shown that food allergy affects 10% of children up to one year of age; between 4-8% of children aged up to five years of age and approximately 2% of adults 2 The good news is that around 20 percent of children will outgrow their peanut allergy.1 Children who experience more severe allergic reactions including breathing problems, however, are less likely to grow out of their peanut allergy than children who have had milder reactions.1

So why is food allergy becoming so common? Findings are still unclear at this stage however research continues. There are many studies on allergy prevention, however, there are no definitive guidelines on how to guarantee the prevention of food allergy.