Peanut Allergies On The Rise, Doctors Say Old Medical Advice Is Wrong

NJ Spotlight News | September 1, 2015 | Health Care
While peanut allergies within the state are on the rise, doctors say that old medical advice may be wrong.

By Brenda Flanagan

“It’s a little hard, because everybody else can have that and I can’t. So it’s a little sad that I can’t have it,” said Jordyn Faivus.

“It” is cashews. Faivus first ate a cashew at age three, had an immediate reaction, her mom says.

“Face got swollen, she had trouble breathing, she threw up,” said Shari Redan.

That was four years ago. Today we’re at Allergy & Asthma Specialists in Saddle River, where Faivus’s doctor will conduct a food challenge to see whether the second grader can eat a cashew.

“She may be one of the lucky ones. There is a percentage of patients where the sensitivity goes away,” said Dr. Leonard Silverstein.

“And we’re hoping after today we’ll find out she’s no longer allergic,” said Redan.

An initial needle test showed no reaction, so Silverstein gives Jordyn a tiny chunk of cashew — and everyone waits. His office does two to three food challenges a day. They’re swamped.

“My practice has been overtaken by food allergies.  When I first started 25 years ago, it was rare. Every single patient I see almost has food allergies, food allergies — peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds,” said Silverstein.

He calls it an epidemic. A recent study shows peanut allergies in the U.S. rose steadily — from .4 percent of kids about 20 years ago, to 1.4 percent in 2008, to 2 percent in 2010. What’s going on? One theory says modern kids lead such hygienic, bacteria-free lives, their immune systems start reacting to different foods. And that old medical advice about not feeding peanuts to kids under three is wrong, doctors now say.

“In some countries where peanuts are being introduced at an earlier age that perhaps they have lower rates of peanut allergy,” said Dr. Niti Chokshi. 

Chokshi says researchers fed peanuts several times a week to very young at risk kids and found only 3 percent of kids who ate peanuts developed allergies. Among those who ate no peanuts, the allergy rate topped 17 percent.

“I didn’t expect a 70 to 80 percent risk decrease in children that introduced these nuts early on,” said Chokshi.

“It’s important to actually get the patients eating peanuts at an early age to prevent the development of peanut allergy,” said Silverstein.

The American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed that view — Silverstein’s office began offering peanuts to toddlers several months ago, but that only works before kids develop bad allergies. For kids like 14-yr-old Alexander Chang, it’s too late to desensitize.  Peanuts are his poison — literally. 

“I could potentially die from it,” said Chang.

Chang travels with an epipen — containing life-saving adrenaline. His friends know not to eat problem foods around him, but he’s learned to tell strangers.

“It’s kinda awkward for me. And I feel it’d be strange for them too, to have to put away their food and stop eating,” said Chang.  “Yeah, it’s important for people to speak up.”

Kids heading back to class in New Jersey this fall will find the school nurse stocks epipens and a new law lets them use it at their discretion to save a life. But parents are their best defense, says Chang’s mom. 

“He needed to have somebody in there to let everybody know what his allergy was and how to keep him safe,” said Cheryl Chang.

As for Faivus, good news, she ended up eating several cashews and she’s fine. They’ll be careful over the next six months but she’ll be eating cupcakes at the next school birthday party. 

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight