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Health Team

Kids Developing Peanut Allergies Earlier

Posted December 5, 2007 8:29 p.m. EST
Updated December 5, 2007 11:02 p.m. EST

— Peanut-allergy reactions are among the most severe ones caused by foods. About 1 percent of children less than 5 years old have peanut allergy, and that number has doubled in the past 15 to 20 years.

Duke researchers thought they noticed a trend of younger children having their first peanut allergy reactions, so they did a study and found they were right.

It's important to understand the problem.

For example, don't send Noah Schaffer, 5, or his older sister, Rachel, peanuts for Christmas. Noah is allergic to them. It all began with a tiny piece of a peanut butter cookie when he was about 1 year old.

“Within just 20 minutes, [his] ears swelled twice as big … [He had] hives all over his face,” said Noah’s mother, Robyn Smith. She gave her son an antihistamine and rushed him to a hospital.

The new Duke study published in the Journal of Pediatrics shows the first allergic reaction to peanuts in children born between 1995 and 1997 used to occur in children at 2 to 3 years of age.

“The children that have come after the year 2000 develop reactions to peanuts as early as 14 to 15 months of age,” said Dr. Wesley Burks with Duke Pediatric Immunology.

Burks says people are at increased risk of peanut allergy if other allergies, especially other types of food allergies, are common in their family. Those at greatest risk have atopic dermatitis (or eczema) and either milk or egg allergy.

Noah is part of a separate Duke study for immunological therapy, helping him build up a tolerance for greater amounts of peanut protein.

“It's helping us to learn from an investigation how we might make the immune system no longer allergic to peanut,” Burks said.

At first, just 1/12 of a peanut would cause a reaction. Over a span of two years, Noah built up a tolerance for more than six peanuts each day.

Noah's family doesn't plan to stock up on peanuts, but if Noah were to eat food with peanut protein, the reaction, if any, might not be as bad.