Peanuts – and allergies more generally – are in the news again following the publication of a study showing that babies given peanut snacks in the first year maintain their allergy protection even when peanuts are later avoided for a year.
This was the follow-up to an earlier study (which was a randomised control trial, the ‘gold standard’ for clinical research) which found that the early introduction of peanut snacks among babies at high risk for allergies can prevent peanut allergies. The original study lead to a flurry of not-especially-scientifically-grounded headlines about how peanut allergies could be ‘cured’ by giving babies peanuts at four months.
Unfortunately things aren’t quite as simple as that. We don’t have a huge amount of evidence about the best way to prevent allergies, but the peanut studies support the argument that avoiding or delaying the introduction of allergenic foods doesn’t reduce allergies.
In the UK, current NHS advice is that before six months babies should avoid typically allergenic food such as nuts, eggs, wheat, seeds, fish and shellfish. It is recommended that these foods are introduced one at a time so you can spot an allergic reaction.
This guidance may change as various international bodies such as the World Allergy Organisation have come out in support of the early (i.e. from four months) introduction of peanut products to babies at high risk of allergies
Babies are seen to be at risk of developing allergies if there is a family history of eczema, asthma, hay fever or food allergies. It’s quite common for children to have different allergies from their parents. Babies inherit the susceptibility to allergies rather than the allergy itself, as this depends upon what a baby has been exposed to.
From a practical perspective, it is good to be aware of the signs of an allergic reaction in a baby (you can read about the difference between allergies and food intolerances here. The NHS’s website here has a helpful list of the symptoms of an allergic reaction (a baby may have one or more of these):
• Diarrhoea or vomiting
• A cough
• Wheezing and shortness of breath
• Itchy throat and tongue
• Itchy skin or rash
• Swollen lips and throat
• Runny or blocked nose
• Sore, red and itchy eyes
A very severe allergic reaction is known as anaphylaxis, and can be life-threatening. Signs include swelling of the mouth, throat or tongue (causing breathing/swallowing difficulties) and collapsing into unconsciousness . Normally symptoms start within minutes of eating or coming in to contact with the food, although there can be a delay of one to two hours.
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency, and you should call 999/911/000 immediately.
Allergies can be a massive worry for parents. There are gaps in our knowledge unfortunately, and we’ve still got a lot to learn. The good news is that there is research underway to help plug these gaps (for instance the EAT Study).
In the meantime, if you think your baby is at risk of developing an allergy, it's best to get specialist guidance which takes into account your individual baby and your family history.