About 1 million kids in the U.S. live with a peanut allergy, and only about one in five of them will outgrow it.
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While these children must strictly avoid exposure to peanuts to prevent severe (and potentially life-threatening) allergic reactions, a new treatment just approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could help ease some of the anxiety that comes with living with such an allergy.
The medication, called Palforzia, is designed to build up an allergic child’s tolerance for small amounts of peanut — like the amounts that they could accidentally be exposed to at any given time.
What it does (and doesn’t do)
“This is actually the first therapy for food allergies of any kind, and it’s directed only at peanut,” explains allergist Sandra Hong, MD.
It’s approved for children ages 4 to 17 and comes in a capsule pill. Children who can’t take pills can open up the capsule and add the medication into foods.
“It has measured amounts of peanut flour, or peanut protein, and you take doses in slowly increasing amounts,” Dr. Hong says.
The first dose is administered in a doctor’s office. A child would then need to see their doctor every time the dose increases (which is every two weeks) until they reach a maximum dose at about six months.
The medication doesn’t give children the license to start eating peanut products and can’t be used as an emergency treatment for allergic reactions. Rather, it’s designed to provide a “safety net” in the event of an accidental exposure.
Children who take the medication would still need to carry an epinephrine pen and avoid exposure to peanut products.
“It’s not a cure in any way,” Dr. Hong says. “The idea is to hopefully prevent something from happening.”
Not suitable for everyone
Studies performed on this drug showed that when people stayed at the same dose, their tolerance for peanuts grew over time, Dr. Hong explains. In addition to being able to tolerate some peanut exposure, when people did have reactions, they were less severe.
But it’s not a good option for everyone. Because the medication contains peanut, it can create reactions and, therefore, some anxiety, she adds.
“When these individuals go in, they need to stay on [the medication] for at least months, or maybe even years,” she says. “At this point, we don’t know the timeframe that people will be able to develop a tolerance — we just know that they need to continue it.”
While the pill isn’t a cure for peanut allergies, Dr. Hong says it may provide a bit of security to children and give them better quality of life.
“Now, maybe they don’t have to eat at the peanut-free table,” she says. “Maybe they can go to that party where there’s cake and not be worried about it.”