Special Report: Treating Peanut Allergies

Peanut allergies in children continue to increase at an alarming rate.

But a recent study shows promise when it comes to battling back against those peanut allergies.

In this Special Report, Katie Boomgaard explains how giving children peanuts at a young age could help stop the allergy in its tracks.

Cassie Heyd’s son was about 14 months old when he had his first allergic reaction. The scariest part was not knowing what caused it.

“No clue that it was peanut, he had had a lot of everything that day, he had a no-bake cookie, he had several pizza, many different things,” said Cassie.

Cassie, like many parents, wondered if it was her fault.

“I think every allergy parent tries to figure out exactly what we did that created it, but I don’t really think there’s really a whole lot that does create it, I think it’s just there, it happens.”

Peanut allergies have doubled in the past ten years. It’s prompted a study published in February in the New England Journal of Medicine. It looked at 640 infants, 4 to 11 months old, and all high risk of peanut allergy. Half of the infants were not given peanuts and the other half got peanuts three times a week for five years. Allergist, Dr. Martin Dubravec is excited about the outcome.

“In this study, what it demonstrated was that for these patients, if they avoided peanut, if they ate no peanut, they had markedly increased chance of being allergic to peanut at age five versus if they started eating peanut as early as, or peanut based foods, as early as four months of age,” explained Dr. Dubravec.

In fact, those who had peanuts were 80 percent less likely to develop peanut allergies.

“What we use to think was, you would give kids peanuts under a year, they’re immune system which is not yet fully mature at that age, we’d see the peanut proteins and say ‘hey this is an invader, I need to protect myself against this’ and we’d develop a reaction to those peanut proteins,” said Pediatrician Joe Santangelo, Mackinaw Trail Pediatrics. “And the thought was if you waited until kids were older and they’re intestines and immune system were more mature then they could eat peanuts.”

But now, according to this study, early exposure to peanuts could lower the number of children with the allergy. But those findings aren’t reassuring for those who know the consequences of an allergy attack.

“I would be scared, just because I’ve dealt with it myself now, now I believe every parent should carry Benadryl as a backup,” said Cassie. “It’s a lot different for someone who has allergies to look upon this, yes I would be scared.”

“Problems with the study were that it looked at only a very specific kind of patient, that is a patient who had a family history of peanut allergies, it didn’t look at someone who doesn’t have a family history who just becomes allergic on their own,” said Dr. Santangelo.

Dr. Santangelo says he is not sure if he’s ready to give parents the go-ahead.

“It’s really a balance because we really don’t want to give peanuts to a baby and have that baby develop a peanut allergy and have serious health complications from that, but on the other hand if I give peanuts to every baby and I can prevent a large number of kids from ever becoming allergic, then that may be of benefit,” said Dr. Santangelo. “And right now with just a small number of studies related to feeding young children peanuts, I’m not sure I’m ready to make a firm stand one way or the other.”

Doctors do encourage high risk families to bring their babies to get tested first before actually taking the jump and being exposed to peanuts for the first time.

“Anytime there’s a rash of any type, swelling of the lips or tongue, projectile vomiting of any type, colic, stomach cramps, diarrhea, those are all indications of a food allergy,” said Dr. Dubravec. “And those occur within 90 minutes of eating the food in almost all patients.”

Allergists like Dr. Dubravec are ready to help any family willing to go through this process and start reducing the number of children with peanut allergies.

“I think it should reassure our parents that they shouldn’t have to restrict their child to any type of food and that if they give the child a food, it does not mean they are putting them at risk for developing a food allergy, in fact, it may just do the opposite,” said Dr. Dubravec. “So the bottom line is, don’t restrict your child, but if there is a question, if there’s a history of strong family history of severe food allergies, severe eczema, it’s reasonable to get checked out first.”