Like most moms, Carol Tran was excited about her son’s first birthday. The family gathered around the cake, cameras rolling, and waited for the birthday boy to take a bite. To her horror, just a taste of the frosting caused Kyle’s face to break out in hives. “I had never seen an allergic reaction like that before… and it was all on tape,” she said.
A trip to the doctor’s office revealed that, like an increasing number of children, Tran’s son is allergic to peanuts and peanut products, which are included in all sorts of food items, including cake frosting.
Kyle, now four, was lucky. For some children, the mere proximity to someone who has eaten something with peanuts can cause a severe reaction, anaphylactic shock, or even death. Tran now carries epinephrine injections wherever the family goes in case Kyle comes in contact with peanuts.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAA&I), about 1.5 million Americans have peanut allergies. About one in four of those have a severe form of the allergy. A study released last year indicated that the allergy is on the rise, with as many as 3.3 percent of children testing positive.
Peanuts are actually not nuts, but rather a member of the legume family. The AAA&I considers it one of the “big eight” of foods causing allergic reactions, along with tree nuts, eggs, cow’s milk, soybean, fish, crustaceans, and wheat. Less common, but also dangerous, are allergies to seeds, such as sunflowers, cotton seeds and poppy seeds.
Experts aren’t sure why there is such an increase in the number of people with peanut allergies. Some research indicates that an increase in breastfeeding is actually contributing to the problem. Lactating women who eat peanuts or peanut products may be unknowingly sensitizing children who are pre-disposed to the allergy.
Pregnant and nursing women—particularly those who have a history of other food allergies—are now advised to avoid peanuts, but that has only recently become the case. “When I was pregnant, the books, the magazines, the doctors, nobody told me not to eat peanut butter,” Tran said.
Looking back, she said she could see some signs of the impending allergy. As an infant, her son often suffered from eczema and would occasionally get a rash around his mouth after nursing.
Like many other children with peanut allergies, Kyle was later diagnosed with another food allergy. He is also allergic to wheat.
In recent years, schools and day care centers have been struggling to balance the nutritional needs of children against the fact that peanuts can be deadly for a small number of people. Peanut butter sandwiches are about as American as apple pie, but the once ubiquitous staple is now missing from many lunch boxes.