Written by: Cally Worden
Peanuts are one of the most common allergies around. For those who suffer from this allergy even the slightest hint of peanuts entering the body can have devastating effects.
Peanuts are not strictly part of the nut family – they are a legume (like lentils and peas). But the proteins inside peanuts closely resemble the structure of those found in tree nuts. For this reason, anyone allergic to peanuts are highly likely to have problems with the likes of walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, macadamias, pistachios, cashew nuts and pecans. And vice versa.
The Effects of a Nut Allergy
The body’s immune system is finely-tuned to attack anything is sees as an infection. In an individual who is allergic to tree nuts or peanuts, the immune system is flawed and experiences a massive over-reaction to the proteins that these foods contain. It views the proteins as invaders that are potentially damaging to the body and reacts strongly to fight them off. A chemical battle begins that floods the body with potentially harmful chemicals, such as an overload of histamine.
This chemical flood can cause the body to respond in any or all of the following ways:
- Coughing and wheezing
- Difficulty breathing
- Vomiting and diarrhoea
- Stomach pains
- Constricted throat and hoarseness
- Swollen, weepy or itchy eyes
- Hives, spots and swelling
- A significant drop in blood pressure
Reactions vary from person to person and one individual can respond in different ways to each exposure event.
Perhaps the best-known severe reaction to peanuts and nuts is Anaphylaxis. This strong reaction can at first appear similar to some of the more mild symptoms – shortness of breath, low blood pressure leading to dizziness, etc. But in Anaphylaxis the symptoms take a sudden and desperate turn for the worse. The body requires swift treatment to counter the effects of the allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening.
Levels of Exposure
It is most common for peanut and tree nut allergies to become apparent when a person eats a small amount of the food. It is the proteins in the nuts that cause the problem and for these to be released, it is generally necessary for the nuts to be swallowed. In very rare cases an extremely sensitive individual may experience an adverse reaction from handling nuts (such as shelling peanuts), or from being in a semi-contained close environment where nuts are being prepared, such as in a restaurant or kitchen. As each nut is released from its shell, a tiny amount of protein is released into the air. In settings where this is concentrated, a person with a very rare and high degree of allergic sensitivity may experience an allergic reaction.
Clearly, once an allergy to peanuts or tree nuts has been identified it is important to avoid eating foods that contain them. This is more difficult than you may imagine – they are often added to the most obscure foods as a flavour enhancer or thickener. Chilli, is one example. Manufacturers in the UK are now obliged to mention the presence or potential presence of nuts on their food labels. Other foods to avoid are goods baked on store premises, ice cream, homemade sweets and any other products where the possibility of cross-contamination exists, however small the possibility.
Living with Nut Allergies
Vigilance is your best friend. You can control the foods you eat at home, but outside it is vital that you take care. Be wary of accepting snacks or foods from any other source. Make sure friends and work colleagues are aware of your allergy and what to do to help you in an emergency. If your child suffers from this allergy, it is important to educate them on the dangers of eating food that they cannot be certain is safe and to advise the school of their susceptibility.