What to Do If Your Child Has a Severe Peanut Allergy
Having a child with a severe peanut allergy can be life-changing. An allergy doctor gives science-backed tips for protecting your children without making them feel restricted.
Separate school lunch tables. No sharing treats. Living with a peanut allergy can make childhood feel like a downer.
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Dr. Bjelac offers four science-backed tips on how to help keep your child allergy-free — or living their best life in spite of a severe peanut allergy.
A peanut allergy is the ultimate irony: Your child’s immune system mistakenly thinks peanuts are dangerous. It then overreacts to the point where eating peanuts becomes, well, dangerous.
“Peanut proteins are very allergenic,” explains Dr. Bjelac. “We also believe that the cooking method affects their allergenicity. Most peanut products consumed in the U.S. are roasted, which increases how allergenic they are.”
And unfortunately, peanut allergies are on the rise, tripling between 1997 and 2008. Dr. Bjelac estimates that peanut allergies now affect around 3% of U.S. children, or 1.2 million children and teens.
“While most food allergy is found in childhood, peanut allergies tend to persist into adulthood. Less than 20% of kids will outgrow a peanut allergy,” relates Dr. Bjelac. “But if you empower yourself with the right information, you and your child can still have a great quality of life.”
Dr. Bjelac recommends these four steps to protect your child from the unthinkable — while avoiding a police state in the process:
Eat the peanut. Wait, what? Take a lesson from the Israelis. Unlike American children, who were often told to wait till age 3 to eat peanuts, Israeli children are exposed as babies. And they have far less peanut allergies than Americans.
“One of their first finger foods is called Bamba — a puffed peanut butter snack. I call them the Cheerios of Israel,” says Dr. Bjelac. “We now understand that the earlier you eat a food, the more likely your immune system will recognize that it’s safe.”
Still a little skittish? Dr. Bjelac says to take it slow. “Peanuts shouldn’t be your child’s first food. Talk to your pediatrician about how to introduce them.” Some tips for safely introducing your baby to peanut include:
If your child has had an allergic reaction to any food, an allergist can help you figure out what it was and how to manage it. “Parents should be empowered after a visit to an allergy specialist,” notes Dr. Bjelac. Armed with a food allergy action plan, you’ll know about:
An allergy doctor can also tell you if your child is a good candidate for immunotherapy to treat their allergy. Immunotherapy introduces tiny doses of an allergen to desensitize the immune system to it. There are three main types of peanut allergy treatment:
“I hope you never have to use it, but the epinephrine needs to go wherever your child goes,” cautions Dr. Bjelac. “If you ever need it, I don’t want you to wish you had it.”
While schools are doing their part with peanut-free tables and snacks, these precautions can make children feel on the outs with their peers. “Parents know their child better than anyone else. If you know your child will make smart food choices, won’t share food and will ask for visible peanut residue to be wiped away before sitting down, then your child can sit with their peers,” relates Dr. Bjelac.
Add to that a surprising silver lining: Most food allergy reactions require mucosal exposure. The peanut has to come in contact with the mouth, inside of the nose or eyes. It’s rare for a child to react to airborne exposure.
“Peanut proteins don’t cause reactions like that. Typically, incidental contact, such as touching surfaces without visible peanut product on them, wouldn’t be enough to cause a whole body reaction.”
But her recommendation goes both ways. “If parents are worried their child is a risk-taker and likes to share food, the peanut-free table is probably a better choice. But these decisions are not always black and white and need to be made based on the individual child. And we need to give kids some credit for taking care of themselves, too.”