What is a nut allergy?
Nuts come in all shapes and sizes and are the most common food allergy. Nuts that people are allergic to include almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, pistachios, and even peanuts, which strictly speaking aren’t actually a nut (they are classed as a legume, from the same food group as peas and lentils).
The allergies tend to be split between peanuts and tree nuts, but since the signs and symptoms are almost identical, we’ll just be looking at nut allergies in general.
When a nut allergy sufferer comes into contact with nuts – through eating them, getting nut oils on their skin, or even just inhaling their dust – the body mistakes the nut as a threat. It responds by launching a defence against the allergen, in the form of a substance called histamine. When this is released into the body it can cause symptoms ranging from a red skin rash to swollen eyes, lips, hands and feet.
Some people even go into anaphylactic shock: this can lead to lightheadedness or fainting, changes in heart rate and panic, airways narrowing, stomach pain with nausea and vomiting, and even collapsing or unconsciousness.
Four ways to manage your allergy
1) Be prepared
As a nut allergy can cause a life-threatening anaphylactic shock, being prepared is hugely important. People with a history of anaphylactic shock should carry at least two EpiPens at all times and make sure their friends and family know how and when to use them. It’s also worth wearing an allergy bracelet, which will let strangers know what to do.
2) Tell people
While friends and family will probably know about the allergy, it’s also worth mentioning it to work colleagues. The same applies to ordering food from restaurants or a food outlet. Even if menus specify that a dish doesn’t contain nuts, it might have been cooked in environments handling nuts and so it may contain traces of the allergen.
3) Avoid certain foods
While nuts can appear in cuisines from all around the world, there are some types of food that use nuts more than others. Chinese, Mexican and Thai dishes often include nuts, sometimes as a garnish which is not mentioned on the menu. Nuts can also be found in things like pesto, salad dressings, baked goods, pancakes, and in vegetarian meat substitutes.
4) Consider getting treated
Desensitisation treatments are available, in which you are given a tiny amount of the allergen to help you build up an immunity to it. This has been proven to work especially well in children. A study published in medical journal The Lancet found that after six months of oral immunotherapy, where the patients eats a small dose, up to 91% of children aged 7 to 16 could safely ingest about five peanuts a day. This must only be done under close medical supervision.
Nut allergy facts
It is predicted that around 20% of children with a peanut allergy eventually outgrow it
- 25% to 40% of people allergic to peanuts also are allergic to tree nuts
- Around 1 in 3 people with a peanut allergy have severe reactions
- While peanuts have been withdrawn on some airlines, due to fears that the dust could get into the air conditioning system, the chances are that even in the worst cases this would only cause a mild reaction.
- The exact cause of the allergy is not actually known