BY AMANDA OWENS
Peanut allergies continue to rise every year. Children and adults can be born with these allergies; however, some develop with age. Some people do not realize the dangers that these tasty nuts can cause or the different types of food that contain peanut derivatives.
Last holiday season while Holli and Derick Walker of Macon were making buckeye candies, their 21-month-old daughter, Makayla, started having trouble breathing. Her lips and tongue started to swell causing her throat to close. After seeking immediate emergency assistance, they soon learned of Makayla’s peanut allergy. Because of the large amount of peanut butter this recipe required, the peanuts triggered an anaphylactic reaction.
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy occurs when a person eats a certain food that causes a reaction within his or her immune system. According to the Mayo Clinic, about six to eight percent of children and about four percent of adults are affected by food allergies. Peanut allergies are common in children, and peanuts are one of the most common causes of severe allergic reactions. More common than allergies are food intolerances, which are not quite as serious and do not bother the immune system.
The immune system reacts once contact is made with peanuts. Direct contact by eating or touching may cause symptoms, which may also occur with inhaling peanut dust or food items such as cooking sprays containing ingredients with peanuts. Cross contact happens often too due to foods seasoned with peanuts or cooked in peanut oil. In severe cases like Makayla Walker’s, people cannot even be near peanuts without reacting.
How peanut allergies are diagnosed?
Several tests can be performed to determine the extent of allergies. Patients and doctors work together to diagnose peanut allergies. Food diaries, discussion of symptoms, and physical examination help doctors with a preliminary diagnosis. Doctors may ask their patients to eliminate certain foods then gradually add them back to their diet. This helps determine which food is causing the symptoms, but usually will not be done with severe reactions.
Dermatologists can also perform a skin test where food items are placed on the skin. Then, they prick that area of skin with a needle to allow the food to enter the system. A raised bump or rash will occur if an allergy exists. Blood can also be taken to determine a person’s allergy antibodies in the immune system. These, however, are not always accurate.
Contact your doctor if you feel the need for these tests to be performed on you or your child. The doctor should be able to differentiate between a food allergy and a food intolerance.
The Mayo Clinic cautions readers: “An allergic response to peanuts usually occurs within minutes after exposure and symptoms range from mild to severe. Peanut allergy symptoms can include:
Skin reactions such as hives, redness or swelling
Itching or tingling in or around the mouth and throat
Digestive problems such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting
Tightening of the chest
Shortness of breath or wheezing
Runny or stuffy nose”
Anaphylaxis is a very serious, sometimes fatal, rapid allergic reaction. The symptoms include itching, hives, difficult breathing, and swollen lips. Other serious symptoms are vomiting, cramping, and low blood pressure. If anaphylaxis occurs, doctors prescribe a medication such as epinephrine (EpiPen) for patients to have available if this occurs again.
People allergic to peanuts can also be allergic to tree nuts, such as pecans, almonds, walnuts, and cashews. They should consult their physician to decide if they should avoid these nuts. Local allergist Dr. David Plaxico suggest learning precautions, symptoms, and treatment from The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). Call 800/929-4040 or visit them online at www.foodallergy.org.
Shockingly, many foods contain peanuts or peanut oil; foods can also be prepared on the same cooking surfaces as peanuts according to FAAN. Children tend to eat foods such as ice cream, candy, chocolate, some asian foods, and even pizzas; many of these can contain peanuts or derivatives that may cause anaphylaxis.
Middle Georgia school protocols
Parents and students should take precautions when eating foods or snacks provided by school systems. For special occasions, parents and teachers have to be careful about snacks that may contain peanuts in case a student may have an allergy. Dames Ferry Elementary School in Jones County allows snacks, cupcakes, candy, etc. for students to share, but teachers are also very adamant about making the whole class aware of any allergies beforehand.
Principals, teachers, and school nurses need to have a record of any allergies, so they can administer correct medication if needed. Parents will be notified in the event of any kind of allergic reaction. Houston County school systems allow students to carry EpiPens and inhalers with them at all times. School staff just needs to have a signed letter to keep on file.
Students must also follow school rules and make sure they do not share or trade any foods. There are MANY foods that contain peanuts and peanut derivatives that students may not realize. Sharing food can lead to a dangerous situation; Bibb County schools enforce these rules seriously to prevent reactions.
When to see a doctor
If symptoms start to show shortly after eating, people should see their doctor or an allergist. Doctors can easily diagnose allergies during the reaction. Seek emergency treatment if you or your child has a severe reaction to peanuts, especially if you have any signs or symptoms of anaphylaxis. Call 911 or your local emergency number for severe dizziness, trouble breathing, or loss of consciousness.