Peanut allergies are potentially deadly and are growing in number. Pediatricians normally recommend parents avoid giving their children peanut products while they are young, but guidelines may change based on recent evidence that peanut exposure could help prevent allergies.
In the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study in the U.K., published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers recruited six hundred and forty babies that were at risk for a peanut allergy. This included infants between four and eleven months old with an egg allergy, eczema, or both, which are risk factors for developing a peanut allergy. The researchers used allergy tests to exclude any babies who already had a peanut allergy and were at risk for a deadly reaction.
The babies in the study were split into two groups, with one group avoiding all peanut products as recommended by pediatricians, and the other group receiving small amounts of peanut protein spread through three or more meals each week. The six grams of peanut protein per week is equal to about twenty-four whole peanuts. The researchers then followed the progress of the children, finally testing them for a peanut allergy at the age of five.
What the researchers found may be surprising to some. The group of children who were regularly exposed to peanut products were much less likely to develop a full peanut allergy by the age of five, at 3.2 percent versus 17.2 percent in the peanut avoidance group. The peanut exposure seemed to be reducing the incidence of peanut allergies by about eighty percent. The difference was noticeable even in children who had shown a mild reaction to peanuts on their first allergy test, suggesting they were already beginning to develop a peanut allergy. Just over ten percent of those children developed a peanut allergy by the time they were five when they were regularly exposed to peanut protein, versus just over thirty-five percent of the peanut-avoidance children.
Over the past couple of decades, the number of children with peanut or tree nut allergies has tripled and now sits at about two percent of the North American population. Because of the potential danger of exposing young children to peanuts, the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended in the year 2000 that parents do not feed peanut products to children until the age of three. However, as the rates of peanut allergies climbed, that advice was reversed in 2008. This new study seems to confirm that was the best course of action. Most pediatricians now recommend that food exposure should not be delayed past the age of about six months.
As encouraging as this study is for kids at risk for developing a peanut allergy, experts warn to not try this at home. Whole peanuts can be a choking hazard for small children and should be avoided altogether, and parents should have their children tested for a severe peanut allergy in advance.
More studies are needed to see if there are similar results for other food-related allergens, such as eggs, seafood, and milk. Researchers also still need to determine the appropriate amount of peanut protein to be effective and how long the peanut exposure should continue to offer kids the best protection. To answer the last question, some of the children who were fed peanuts will stop eating peanuts past the age of five. They will then be monitored to see if they still develop a peanut allergy once they are no longer exposed to the potential allergen.
The study gives hope to those suffering from peanut allergies that there may be a treatment on the horizon, not just the emergency Epipen. It is also encouraging news for those who are concerned about the rising incidence of peanut allergies in the North American population.