Nut allergies: the facts you need to know

Nut allergies have the potential to be life-threatening, but are they as common as you think? Here’s our must-read guide

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Many parents shudder at the though of giving nuts to their baby; after all, nuts are widely perceived as an allergen and a choking risk for children under five. But despite their bad press, nuts are superfoods that are rich in essential nutrients, and can actually give your child’s diet a power-packed boost. So should we be worried about nut allergies in babies and children?

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What is a nut allergy?

An allergy occurs when the immune system overreacts to an allergen (a substance that the body mistakes for being harmful). This triggers symptoms that can range from uncomfortable and annoying to severe and life-threatening.

Around 1-2% of children in the UK suffers from a nut allergy. If there is a family history of atopic allergies (hay fever, asthma and eczema), your child is at a higher risk of developing a nut allergy.

Most allergic reactions to nuts occur for the first time when children are between 14 months and two years old, and are not outgrown. Both peanuts and tree nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, Brazils and pistachios) can be allergens.

Nuts in pregnancy

Previously, the government advised against eating peanuts during pregnancy to avoid predisposing your unborn baby to allergies, but this advice has changed. Now, it’s considered safe to eat all types of nuts while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Of course, if you are allergic to nuts, you should avoid them as usual. You may also want to steer clear if you or your partner suffer from asthma, eczema, hay fever or other allergies.

Introducing nuts to your baby or child

If there is a history of allergies in your immediate family, talk to your GP or health visitor before you give peanuts or nuts for the first time. But if there’s no family link, it’s considered safe to give nuts after six months old, although they should be crushed or ground for under fives to avoid choking.

New research actually suggests that giving peanuts to very young babies might be the key to preventing peanut allergies. But despite the conclusive findings more research needs to be down; the study showed that when children considered at risk of developing an allergy were fed peanuts regularly from 4-11 months old they were 10 times less likely to develop an allergy.

When you give your baby peanuts for the first time, watch out for any allergic symptoms such as difficulty breathing, rashes, runny nose or upset tummy. Symptoms of a mild reaction include swelling of the face, sickness, hives, colicky pains, and tightness around the throat. If your baby develops these symptoms, take the nut-based food away from him and seek prompt medical attention from your GP.

Signs of a severe nut allergy include all the symptoms above, plus wheezing or breathing difficulty, general skin redness, fast heart rate and loss of consciousness. This type of reaction, known as anaphylaxis, can be life-threatening so call an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E.

Symptoms of nut allergies develop quickly, usually within minutes and up to an hour of coming into contact with nuts. If there has been no reaction more than four hours afterwards, an allergy is unlikely.

If your child has a nut allergy

If your child is diagnosed with a nut allergy, you’ll need to get used to checking food packaging to see if nuts (or traces of nuts) are mentioned. Sometimes even products you know change their ingredients, so be vigilant, especially with cakes, biscuits, pastries, desserts, ice cream, cereals, cereal bars, nut butters and spreads, confectionery, vegetarian dishes and salad dressings.

Sometimes peanuts can be listed in the ingredients as groundnut, earth nut, monkey nut, mixed nuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, groundnut oil and arachis oil. Chinese, Thai and Indonesian dishes often use nuts and nut oil.

If your child goes to nursery, inform staff of his nut allergy. If you’re eating out, take food with you or speak to the chef for guidance on safe foods to order. For children with severe nut allergies, even a trace of nuts can trigger an allergic reaction, so be careful at buffets and bakeries. Always pack food for your children if they go to parties. If your child is prescribed medication, make sure it goes wherever he does.

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For more information on nut allergies, contact Allergy UK.

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