A peanut allergy is one of the most common food allergies and is most prevalent among children. It can be a tricky allergy to have considering many foods are manufactured in facilities that process peanuts. An allergic reaction to peanuts can be quite severe, so it’s important to know what foods to avoid and how to handle a reaction, should one occur.
An allergic reaction to peanuts, as with any allergic reaction to food, is an immune system response to the proteins found within peanuts. The immune system recognizes the peanut as something harmful and launches an attack against it to protect the body. Antibodies called immunoglobulin E are produced and trigger the production of chemicals, including the chemical histamine, which causes many of the symptoms of the allergic reaction.
There are a few different ways in which an allergic reaction can be triggered:
- Direct contact: Directly eating or touching a peanut or food that contains peanuts will garner an allergic reaction.
- Cross-contamination: This can occur in facilities where peanuts are processed with other foods.
- Inhalation: Dust or aerosols that contain peanut particles may cause a reaction if inhaled.
Symptoms will begin to appear just a few minutes after coming into contact with a peanut. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:
- Itching or tingling of the mouth or throat
- Nausea or vomiting
- Diarrhea or stomach cramps
- Redness or swelling of the skin
- Difficulty breathing or wheezing
- A runny or stuffy nose
The most severe reaction is called anaphylaxis and is considered to be a medical emergency. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Tightening of the chest and airways
- Swelling of the throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid heart rate
- A sharp drop in blood pressure
- Passing out or feeling light-headed
A reaction that results in anaphylaxis requires medical attention and treatment by means of an epinephrine shot.
Sometimes, what may appear to be a food allergy could really turn out to be intolerance to a certain type of food. In some cases, the food may be tolerated in small amounts, while in other cases it cannot be tolerated at all with a food allergy.
In order to determine whether or not you truly have a peanut allergy, you should always seek diagnosis from your health care provider or physician. There are a few tests that a doctor may use to confirm whether or not you have a peanut allergy.
- Blood test: This is a way of checking your immune system’s response to peanuts by measuring the amount of immunoglobulin E in your blood. However, blood tests may not be accurate in pinpointing your allergy.
- Skin test: During a skin test, the skin on your back or arm will be pricked with a needle containing trace amounts of peanuts. If your skin develops a raised bump or other type of reaction, this shows that you have a peanut allergy.
- Diet: Your doctor may ask you to avoid eating peanuts or products that contain peanuts for a week or two. You may also have to eliminate other foods from your diet to make sure that the allergy is really to peanuts and not another food. The foods can be reincorporated into your diet over the course of a few weeks. If you’ve had serious allergic reactions in the past, this test may not be safe to conduct.
If it is determined that you have a peanut allergy, the next step is to prepare yourself in case of a reaction. Even if you avoid peanuts and peanut products, you may still be allergic to tree nuts or come in contact with something you may not suspect as being contaminated. Keep an over-the-counter antihistamine handy to reduce symptoms of a minor reaction. For a major reaction, you’ll need an epinephrine injection. This can be in the form of an EpiPen or TwinJect, which will inject a dose of epinephrine when pressed against your thigh.
Aside from keeping the necessary medications on hand, you’ll need to make some lifestyle adjustments to avoid having a reaction. Here are some tips to follow:
- Always check the packaging for a label that reads “may contain nuts” or “produced in a factory that processes nuts.” Some foods that fall into this category include cookies, candy, ice cream, and Asian and African foods.
- Always read through the ingredient label for peanuts or a peanut derivative such as peanut butter. Sauces, for example, use peanuts as a thickening agent.
- If you’re eating at a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask a server if certain foods contain peanuts.
- If your child has a peanut allergy, consult with the school cafeteria on whether or not they have peanut-free options and a peanut-free table that your child can sit at during lunch.
- If you’re in doubt about a certain food, don’t eat it. No matter how tempting the food may be, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
It may seem like a peanut allergy is limiting, but it just means that you have to be a little more creative in finding peanut-free options and alternatives. Those minor changes may not be ideal, but they could end up saving your life.