December 9th, 2008
12:02 PM ET

How common are peanut allergies?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

Question asked by Jennifer, Ellijay, Georgia

"Our 17-month-old son was recently given peanut butter during snack time and he had a very severe allergic reaction. How common are peanut allergies, what causes them and what steps can we take to ensure we avoid peanuts?"

Jennifer, food allergies are quite common among children. About 8 percent of kids have some sort of food allergies, the most common allergen being peanuts.   Peanut reactions can cause dizziness, constricted breathing and in some cases loss of consciousness.  What’s happening is your child’s immune system can’t process the protein found in peanuts.  As a defense mechanism, it identifies it as harmful and causes the reaction. 

To avoid trouble, you need to read food labels very carefully. If you are at a restaurant, be sure to alert the server of your peanut allergy.  There are often hidden sources of peanuts in certain foods. For example, arachis oil is actually peanut oil.  And it's common for sunflower seeds to be sorted on machines shared with peanuts.  Also, many ethnic foods, including Thai, African and Chinese dishes contain peanuts. 

 As your child gets older, inform him of the allergy and the risks. Discourage him from sharing foods with other children or at school, which will help limit any surprise attacks.  Also, inform all the key people in your child’s life about the allergy.  Never assume an aunt, a family friend, a baby sitter, or the day care or school knows about his allergy.

 Finally, be prepared: Carry and epinephrine shot on you at all times.  You can also leave a dose with the school or day care in case of emergency.  Epinephrine will increase blood pressure and the open airways in the lungs.

I know it seems like a lot to process but know you aren’t alone! There are many resources on the Web and as well as food allergy support groups to offer more tips to make the transition in diet easier.

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Jake Albrecht

    I'm 21 years old and have had an allergy to peanuts since I was a baby. My reaction is as severe as it gets (Anaphylaxis) so I got to become really careful about where and what I eat. Growing up I never drank after anyone else, and was particularly careful around holidays such as Easter, Valentine's Day, and Halloween because you'd be surprised what peanuts find their way into.

    He'll be fine, knowing the seriousness of the condition is all it really takes to make one very aware of food decisions.

    December 10, 2008 at 06:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. April

    I'm 38 and have been allergic to peanuts since I was 14.
    Throat swelled, hives on my tongue, in my ears, difficult time breathing.
    Jake is correct, peanuts show up in the oddest places.
    Restaurants are the places that I need to be super careful. A cheese cake crust that had crushed peanuts gave me my 2nd reaction of my life. Recovered quickly, but very scary.

    December 10, 2008 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mom to Noah

    My 3 1/2 son is anaphylactic allergic to dairy, egg, peanut, and shellfish. While it is very important to read labels for food always question medication as well! My son was recently admitted to the ER for an asthma attack and had a severe anaphyactic reaction to Ipratroprium Bromide (Atrovent) which has a peanut derivative. We recently learned my son isn't able to take children's Zyrtec because it has a dairy derivative which may contain milk protein.

    December 10, 2008 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Carolyn

    I am 67, have had a peanut allergy all my life, including asthma and eczema. Last night, I ingested a Chick-Fil-A tenderloin. My husband looked at the box and saw that it was cooked in 100% peanut oil. I did not have a reaction. I had one severe anaphylactic shock incident about 25 years ago, I carry an epi pen. The smell of peanut butter nauseates me. I called the business to clarify that they indeed did use peanut oil.
    While researching online today, I ran across an article that stated that pure peanut oil is usually non-allergenic. While I won't be taking that chance again, I was thankful that I did not have a reaction. I have been told that each anaphylactic shock incident can be worse than the last one.

    December 27, 2008 at 17:17 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.