If you or your child has a peanut allergy, that unmistakable smell of peanuts wafting through the air is enough to send you into a panic. But is that really necessary? If you or your child is allergic to peanuts, can the smell alone cause an allergic reaction?

According to Dr. Antony Ham Pong, pediatric allergist in Ottawa, the panicked reaction might be an instinctive response to protect yourself or your child, but rarely do people have allergic reactions, much less anaphylaxis, in response to the smell of a peanut.

Accidental Ingestion

An allergic reaction to food will not occur just because someone is eating peanut butter on crackers in the classroom. Instead, allergic responses happen when a person ingests the peanut protein. The protein must enter the body by licking, tasting or eating it – either on purpose or accidentally.

The proteins can pass from other people’s hands or lips to an allergic person’s eyes or mouth. This is why doctors warn about cross-contamination in a classroom – not because of smells, but because the proteins from a peanut butter sandwich can be left behind on the table and find their way onto the hands of an allergic person.

The Risk of Airborne Proteins

The only exception is when an allergic person is exposed to a large number of airborne peanut proteins. When that happens, an allergic person can have a serious allergic reaction, asthma attack or anaphylaxis.

Pong emphasizes that these reactions are rare. A reaction might occur if a large number of people in a contained space are opening bags of peanuts. This used to happen routinely on airplanes when peanut protein dust accumulated in the air and circulated throughout the plane. Another example might be a small restaurant or bar where peanut shells are dropped on the floor as part of the atmosphere. Enough peanut shells being crushed and kicked in a small space could cause a reaction in an allergic person.

The bottom line is that if you are uncomfortable, get away from the smell. If you can smell it, then proteins are present. Unless you can control the environment, you should get away to avoid cross-contamination.

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