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A new study showing that peanut allergies in children have increased at a shocking rate has researchers wondering what caused the spike.

A team of researchers led by Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, surveyed 5,300 American households in 2008 and compared the results to results of a 1997 study. They found that the number of peanut allergies in children tripled since 1997.

The study appears in the May 12 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“These results show that there is an alarming increase in peanut allergies, consistent with a general, although less dramatic, rise in food allergies among children in studies reported by the CDC,” said Dr. Sicherer in a press release. “The data underscore the need for more study of these dangerous allergies.”

Each year the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) receives reports of consumers who experienced adverse reactions following exposure to an allergenic substance in foods. The FDA requires food manufacturers to declare all ingredients on the product label, but sometimes the manufacturer fails to do so. Causes for this can include oversight, poor production procedures such as using common equipment, or a product containing a flavor ingredient that has an allergenic component, but the label of the product only declares the flavor.

There have been a number of product recalls in the past year due to undeclared allergens. FDA considers peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustacea, tree nuts and wheat allergens that can cause serious allergic reactions in some individuals and that they account for more than 90% of all food allergies.

“Our research shows that more than three million Americans report peanut and/or tree nut allergies, representing a significant health burden,” said Dr. Sicherer. “The data also emphasize the importance of developing better prevention and treatment strategies.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, allergic responses to peanuts usually occur within minutes of exposure and can vary in severity. Symptoms include hives, redness or swelling of the skin, itching or tingling around the mouth and throat, diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea or vomiting, tightness of the chest and runny or stuffy nose.

Peanut allergy can also cause anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening medical emergency requiring drug treatment with epinephrine and professional medical attention. Signs of anaphylaxis include constriction of airways, swelling of throat that hinders breathing, shock or severe drop in blood pressure, dizziness, lightheadedness or loss of consciousness.

Researchers have several theories of what is causing allergies to increase. A popular theory blames our “clean living,” that our immune systems are left in a vulnerable state that is more prone to attack harmless proteins like those in foods, pollens, and animal dander because our population lives less on the farm and uses more medications. Other ideas to explain the increase are the timing of introduction of the food or food preparation methods.

“One theory for the rise, the hygiene hypothesis, holds that we’ve become very good at preventing natural infections, and the immune system is not chewing on things it would normally be chewing on,” Dr. Sicherer told WebMD. “We’re not living on farms anymore, we have lots of antibiotics, but seeing an increase means that something has changed in the environment.”

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