In a Nutshell: Understanding Peanut Allergies

Peanuts are tasty treats, but they also can trigger serious allergic reactions. So much so that they have been banned in some schools. If your child is allergic to peanuts, here’s what you need to know.

Peanuts in shells

Signs of a peanut allergy

Despite its name, the peanut isn’t a nut at all. It’s actually a legume. Legumes are plants that grow underground. The group includes beans, peas, and lentils.

Peanuts may not seem to have much in common with milk, eggs, or wheat either. But like these foods, they are at the top of the food allergy list. Even the slightest trace of a peanut can cause a reaction in children who are allergic to them. And more and more children seem to be developing this serious food allergy.

Your child may be allergic to peanuts if he or she has these symptoms after eating or coming into contact with them:

  • Hives

  • Red, itchy skin

  • Itching in the mouth

  • Swelling of the lips or tongue

  • Vomiting, diarrhea, or other stomach troubles

  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing

A more serious allergic reaction can block blood flow. A child may have chest pain, dizziness, fainting, or a weakened pulse. This type of reaction is called anaphylaxis. It can be life-threatening.

Steps for managing the allergy

Many children develop a peanut allergy early in life. A number of tests can help find out if your child has such an allergy. A common one is a skin prick test. Your child’s healthcare provider will scratch your child’s skin with a small amount of peanut extract. If your child’s skin becomes red and swollen, a peanut allergy is likely.

It’s important to know that your child may test positive for a peanut allergy but not have a reaction. That’s because your child’s body may have not yet built up enough of specific antibodies to cause an allergic reaction. These antibodies are called immunoglobulin E.

Unfortunately, a peanut allergy can’t be cured. And few children outgrow it. So avoiding peanuts and foods that contain them has long been the key strategy for managing the allergy. Many different foods can have peanuts or peanut residue in them. The legume can hide in foods like baked goods, salad dressings, chili sauce, candy, and even pet food.

To help protect your allergic child, follow these tips:

  • When grocery shopping, be sure to check a food item’s ingredients label for peanuts.

  • Always keep medicine on hand. An epinephrine auto-injector can help stop a severe allergic reaction.

  • Work with your child’s healthcare provider to develop a care plan in case of an emergency.

Can you prevent a peanut allergy in your child?

Newer research suggests you may be able to prevent a peanut allergy, mainly in young children at high risk for it. Infants at high risk for the allergy include those with a family history of food allergies or those who already have other food allergies or the skin condition eczema.

In one study, 542 such high-risk children younger than age 1 were divided into two groups. One group was told to not eat peanuts or peanut products over the study period. The other group was given small amounts of a peanut product on a weekly basis. By age 5, children who had been exposed to the peanut product were much less likely to have the allergy.

This research suggests introducing small amounts of peanut products, such as peanut butter, in the first year of life may help prevent the allergy. But talk with your child’s healthcare provider first to see if it is right for your child. Whether your child is at high risk for a peanut allergy or not, never give a child younger than age 4 whole or partial peanuts. They can be a choking hazard.