Exposing Babies to Peanuts May Prevent a Deadly Allergy From Developing

iStock / iStock

Babies’ lives are tough. They can’t communicate their feelings or needs; they don’t understand why anything is happening; and their ability to perceive and interact with the world around them changes by the day. But at least now they’ll be able to eat a food that could benefit their long-term health. New guidelines published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology encourage parents to give their babies small amounts of peanuts, which may help prevent a deadly food allergy later in life.

As anyone with a school-aged child can tell you, food allergies are on the rise. One 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 50 percent increase in childhood food allergies between 1997 and 2011. Scientists have yet to determine the exact cause of this enormous uptick. Until they do, pediatricians and parents have focused on treating the allergies—and preventing them wherever possible.

That used to mean keeping kids and peanuts apart for as long as possible. But doing so didn’t seem to help. Allergies continued to rise. We needed a new strategy.

If avoidance wasn’t working, experts thought, what about exposure? What we call an allergy is the immune system overreacting to an ordinarily harmless trigger. So to prevent allergies from developing, pediatricians began introducing tiny doses of potential triggers when children were still very young. The tactic worked.

“You have the potential to stop something in its tracks before it develops,” report co-author Matthew Greenhawt, of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, told The New York Times. There’s “a window of time in which the body is more likely to tolerate a food than react to it, and if you can educate the body during that window, you’re at much lower likelihood of developing an allergy to that food.”

Evidence continues to pile up in favor of doing just that. Study after study has confirmed the safety of giving babies very small doses of peanuts, eggs, and other common food allergens, and official recommendations have begun to fall in line.

The latest recommendations, created by a panel at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, emphasize the safety of introducing peanuts early on. Specific guidelines for each baby depend on that child’s allergy risk level. Low- and moderate-risk babies can start eating peanut foods around 6 months of age. High-risk kids should start sooner, under a doctor’s supervision.

Of course, doctors do not recommend giving babies whole peanuts, which they could choke on. Instead, they suggest foods made with peanuts or watered-down peanut butter.

“This won’t outright prevent every single case of peanut allergy,” Greenhawt told the Times, “but the number could be significantly reduced by tens of thousands.”

[h/t New York Times]