Protecting people with severe peanut allergies, for whom just one whiff poses the threat of death, has changed lunchtime in America. But a new study in the medical journal the Lancet shows one possible way we can stop living in fear of PBJ: by using a carefully controlled program to expose allergic people to peanuts, the researchers found they could take the edge off the reaction.
This treatment allowed children with all severities of peanut allergy to eat large quantities of peanuts, well above the levels found in contaminated snacks and meals, freeing them and their parents from the fear of a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. The families involved in this study say that it has changed their lives dramatically," said the study leader Dr Andrew Clark from Cambridge University hospitals, which includes Addenbrooke's and the Rosie hospitals.
Essentially, the scientists gave the study subjects increasing doses of peanut protein, helping them to build up their tolerance. Some people had strong allergic reactions along the way, but eventually most of the study subjects got there.
“After six months of treatment with increasing doses of peanut protein, about 80 per cent of the children were able to tolerate the equivalent of about five peanuts and two-thirds were able to tolerate up to 10 peanuts — a reassuring change for families worried about accidental exposures,” says the CBC.
This is, obviously, not something you should try at home. And, though building up peanut tolerance could help take the fear out of everyday life, the treatment isn't perfect. The CBC:
It’s also not a cure that allows people to enjoy peanut butter sandwiches freely. Rather, researchers still need to determine the minimum amount of peanut needed to maintain the tolerance. Otherwise, the allergy sensitivity seems to creep back.
So, peanut-intolerant people may no longer need to flee the library just because someone pulls out some trail mix. The alternative, though, may be a life of inducing occasional mild allergic reactions in order keep peanut tolerance up.