Roughly 26 millions American adults and six million American children suffer from food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. Peanut allergies, which are the most common allergy diagnosis in kids, are largely thought of as something that people are born with as opposed to something they develop later. However, researchers are now finding that’s not the case — and it could be putting lives at risk.
What causes an allergy?
Allergies occur when your immune system attacks something that it sees as an “invader” but that’s actually perfectly harmless, such as pollen, pet hair, or a particular food substance. That immune response can be mild, like sneezing or a runny nose, or it could be more severe, like breaking out in hives or the airways closing up and making it impossible to breathe.
Peanut allergies are actually the leading cause of near-fatal and fatal allergic reactions, otherwise known as anaphylaxis. This is why researchers are singling them out to see how they develop in people at various stages of life.
What does the data say about when we develop peanut allergies?
A new study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology recently looked at survey data from 40,443 participants and found that one in five adults with peanut allergies actually developed them after the age of 18, accounting for roughly 800,000 people out of four million with that particular allergy.
Because people often associate peanut allergies as something that’s diagnosed in children, many doctors don’t think to test adult patients for it if there are common symptoms. If people don’t realize that they’ve developed a peanut allergy, they may consume foods that have peanuts in them or be in the vicinity of peanut products, triggering a reaction that could be damaging or fatal. This is especially true since they won’t have an adrenaline shot, medication, or other fast-acting course of treatment.
No one knows for sure what causes peanut allergies to develop later in life, but one working theory is that people who have pollen sensitivities may develop allergies to plant-based foods like fruits and nuts as well. Scientists are clear, however, that far more research needs to be done in this arena to understand how allergies evolve over time and what signs adults need to watch out for.
Can you prevent allergies from developing later in life?
While there aren’t necessarily steps you can take to stop a specific allergy from ever developing, one of the best things you can do is visit an allergist to see if you may be allergic to any common substances, like peanuts, pollen, wheat, soy, or insect venom.
Even if you think you’re perfectly healthy, that trip to an allergist can give you a more in-depth look — and potentially be life-saving. The recommended frequency is to visit an allergist every two years, but you may be able to spread that out more if you don’t have a history of allergies.
In terms of signs to look out for if you’ve never experienced an allergic reaction, symptoms differ by person as well as the type and amount of peanut products consumed. (For example, there’s a difference between eating a single peanut and an entire bag of them.) In mild cases, many people experience throat tightness, shortness of breath, itchiness in or near the throat and mouth, and skin redness or hives. More severe reactions may include dizziness, a quickening pulse, drops in blood pressure, and blocked airways.
Based on a reaction you’ve had or your visit to an allergist, you may need to start carrying an adrenaline shot, often called an EpiPen, just in case you have a reaction. Some allergies, especially if they’re severe in nature, require long-term medication as well.
The important thing though is to talk to your doctor before you make any changes. And hopefully you won’t have to give up peanut butter!