Are childhood peanut allergies on the rise? According to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the number of peanut allergies in children has more than tripled over an eleven year period – but there could be a new treatment on the horizon.
Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine interviewed more than 13,000 parents by phone, questioning them about peanut allergies in their children to find out how frequent peanut allergies are and whether they’re more common than in the past. As it turns out, the number of children allergic to peanuts has increased more than three times.
Although this type of phone survey is usually less accurate than other studies, it does raise concerns about childhood peanut allergies and why they’re more common now. Some experts believe it’s the sterile environment that many children live in today – where they’re less likely to be exposed to “germs” that stimulate the immune system – that’s responsible for the increase in child peanut allergies.
When the immune system is challenged early in life, it develops in a way that makes allergies and asthma less likely. Children who get infectious diseases such as measles early in life which challenges the immune system are less likely to have allergies and asthma later on. The widespread use of antibiotics could also partially account for the increase in allergies in children since they sterilize the environment.
One intriguing question about peanut allergies in children is how many of them are real? A Swedish study showed that a significant number of people who are diagnosed with peanut allergy actually have an allergy to birch pollen instead. Peanuts and birch pollen have proteins that are similar in structure and they both can give positive results with standard peanut allergy testing. Thus, children with birch pollen allergies can be misdiagnosed with childhood peanut allergies.
Fortunately, a birch pollen allergy can be distinguished from a peanut allergy by using a newer type of procedure called allergen component testing which identifies the exact protein that’s causing the allergic reaction. Using this more sophisticated test, some children may be found not to have peanut allergies after all, but an allergy to birch pollen instead.
The good news is there’s hope on the horizon for kids with childhood peanut allergies. Ongoing research is looking at the benefits of using immunotherapy to treat peanut allergies. This involves exposing kids with peanut allergies to very small quantities of peanuts and gradually increasing their exposures over a long period of time. Preliminary studies show that using this approach enables some kids to eventually eat peanuts without symptoms. More research is needed before immunotherapy could be safely recommended for peanut allergies – but it could become available in the next few years.
The bottom line?
Peanut allergies in children are on the rise, but the possibility of using immunotherapy to treat this allergy may make it possible for kids with allergies to one day enjoy eating peanuts again.