Peanut allergy is the most common serious food allergy in children. About 3 in every 100 pre-school children are allergic to peanuts. For reasons that are largely unknown, it appears that the prevalence of peanut allergy is rising in developed countries.
In most people, a peanut allergy develops in childhood and persists throughout life, but in about 20 per cent of cases, the allergy resolves in adulthood. Children who develop anaphylaxis (a sudden, severe allergic reaction) on exposure to peanuts are less likely to grow out of it.
The most common type of reaction in allergic children exposed to peanuts is hives, either just around the mouth or spread over the whole body. Other common reactions involve abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Very rarely, children can develop anaphylaxis on exposure to peanuts. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition that usually involves sudden difficulty in breathing, swelling of the tongue, and a drop in blood pressure that can lead to collapse and loss of consciousness.
Fortunately, life-threatening peanut allergic reactions are rare.
To diagnose peanut allergy, your doctor will ask about your child's symptoms and perform a skin prick test. A blood test may also be required, although blood tests are used less commonly these days for diagnosing peanut allergy.
It is important to note that not everyone who tests positive to peanut allergy on a skin prick test or blood test will develop a reaction on eating peanuts, therefore a history of symptoms is necessary for diagnosis.
If you were allergic to peanuts as a child, you can have a challenge test to determine whether you are still allergic. A challenge test involves being given a small amount of peanuts under medical supervision. If you have had severe reactions in the past, your test will need to be performed in hospital, where there are appropriate resuscitation facilities at hand.
There is no cure for this allergy. The only treatment is to avoid exposure to peanuts and products containing peanuts, such as peanut butter and satay sauces. All food labels should be checked to see whether products contain peanuts or traces of peanuts.
Despite the name, peanuts are actually legumes, and occasionally a person with a peanut allergy can also be allergic to other legumes such as soy, lentils and peas. There can also be cross-contamination in mixed nuts, so it is generally recommended that people with a peanut allergy avoid all nuts.
Children who have had a severe reaction to peanuts, particularly those who have a history of anaphylaxis, should carry an EpiPen. This is an auto-injecting syringe that a person uses on themselves at the first sign of anaphylaxis. It injects a dose of adrenaline under the skin.
It is important that children who are eligible for an EpiPen are well instructed on its use and have a written anaphylaxis plan from their doctor.
Last Reviewed: 04 December 2008