A peanut allergy is a severe, usually rapid, reaction to the ingestion of peanuts. Symptoms range from atopic dermatitis (hives, eczema, etc.) and digestional discomfort to anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal constriction of the airways and swelling of the throat.
Though these symptoms are similar to those of other food allergies, peanut allergy symptoms tend to be rather severe and account for the majority of fatal or near fatal anaphylactic reactions in the U.S. (Bock, Munoz-Furlong, & Sampson, 2001; Sampson, 2002).
A Histamine Reaction
For reasons that are unknown, a peanut-allergic person produces massive amounts of histamines as soon as the body starts to digest the ingested nuts. In severe cases, treatment must be administered at once to prevent a fatality. Some extremely sensitive people may have a reaction from simply inhaling trace amounts of peanut.
Although peanuts are a ground nut and a peanut allergy is different from a tree nut allergy, there are similarities. In fact, many peanut allergy sufferers also have tree nut allergies. For many, a peanut allergy is a lifelong problem; approximately 20% of infants with peanut allergy outgrow the allergy.
Peanut Allergy vs Other Food Allergies
Food allergies are extremely prevalent, affecting between 4-8% of children, but most are not as dangerous as a peanut allergy, which affects approximately 1% of children. A peanut allergy is more common in people who have other atopic conditions, like eczema, asthma or hay fever, or who have immediate family with these conditions.
Peanut Allergy On The Rise
Allergic food reactions, particularly peanut allergy, are on the rise, according to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Peanut allergy causes an estimated 15,000 emergency room visits each year and nearly 100 deaths. Peanuts, along with milk, eggs, tree nuts (walnuts, almonds and pecans, for example), fish, shellfish, soy and wheat account for 90 percent of all allergic reactions in the United States. Food allergy-induced reactions are estimated to account for tens of thousands of allergic reactions each year and 30,000 emergency room visits.
As mentioned above, a peanut allergy can be distinguished in the severity of the reaction. In fact, studies by Scott H. Sicherer, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a researcher in the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, suggest that 80% of people with a peanut allergy have had a reaction that involves a breathing problem or that affected multiple areas of their body. He further estimates that 100 to 150 people in the USA die each year from peanut allergies.
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network
Food Allergy Among U.S. Children: Trends in Prevalence and Hospitalizations
Asthma & Allergies – American Academy of Pediatrics
Peanut Allergy: A Growing Phenomenon – Journal of Clinical Investigation