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How Do You Prevent Peanut Allergies? Early Exposure Could Help


One of the most common and potentially life-threatening food allergies, peanut allergy tends to develop in childhood and is usually lifelong. But new recommendations offer the chance to reduce the risk of children developing peanut allergy. 

Dr. Drew Bird is an associate professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Food Allergy Center at Children’s Health.

Interview Highlights: 

Are you born with an allergy?  “You’re not born with the allergy in most cases. You’re born with a predisposition, we think. And so what this most recent study showed is that predisposition is through an atopic skin like eczema, which is that dry, flaky skin that’s itchy. And when it develops early – say, in the first four months of life. We know that those kids who have severe eczema have an increased risk of having food allergy, in particular peanut allergy.”

The new recommendations are aimed at such kids? “Particularly at kids who have severe eczema or those who have egg allergy. We know those two factors make it much more likely that you’ll have peanut allergy.”

Why egg allergy? “It seems to be just the process of food allergy development that when we’re looking at food allergies, egg allergy develops earlier than peanut allergy, and it’s not known exactly why. We do know that kids who have an egg allergy often develop peanut allergy. The interesting thing about that is that egg allergy is usually outgrown. But peanut allergy is lifelong.”

How do you prevent peanut allergy by introducing someone to that product? “What has been shown in several studies from the LEAP study in the U.K. was that early introduction of the peanut prevents peanut allergy from beginning. What we think is happening is that exposure to allergens like peanut or egg or milk in the home environment to inflamed skin, so like to a child that has eczema, actually sensitizes someone to peanut allergy. What they’ve shown through their studies is that if you introduce that food to the gut before a clinical response has developed to the food, you can actually prevent that peanut allergy from manifesting itself.”

Could you possibly prevent other allergies with this same approach? “It’s what we hope can happen. I think that what we’re noticing though as well when we look at other foods is that some food allergies develop even earlier. It’s like milk and egg allergy tend to develop before four months of age. The four to six month age range just tends to a really unique time that peanut allergy hasn’t particularly developed, and that we can safely give it and the child not have a reaction.”

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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.