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May 30, 2006

Airline peanut allergy risk studied

Excerpts from The Oregonian

What is the real risk of flying for peanut allergic children and adults?

To help clear the air, we turned to Hugh A. Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and medical director of the nonprofit Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network's Medical Advisory Board in northern Virginia.

One percent: That's the number of Americans -- about 3 million people -- who are allergic to either peanuts (technically a legume, not a nut), tree nuts (such as almonds or walnuts) or both. Nut allergies account for the majority of the 30,000 severe food-allergy reactions that occur annually, including 2,000 hospitalizations and about 200 deaths each year. For 99 percent of the population, however, nuts are a good source of healthy fat that helps protect the heart.

It's not your imagination: If it seems like more attention is being paid to peanut and nut allergies, it's because the incidence is rising in the United States and other Western countries for reasons that are not understood. Consumption alone doesn't explain it. In the United States and China, per-capita consumption of peanuts is the same, but China has virtually no peanut allergies. One difference: We eat mostly dry-roasted peanuts even in peanut butter; the Chinese eat peanuts either boiled or fried. The higher temperatures from dry roasting appear to release more allergens in the peanuts, Sampson says.

Fear of flying: In 1999, Sampson and his colleagues investigated 62 suspected allergic reactions to nuts among airline passengers. They verified 42 cases. Half occurred in children 2 or younger who either ate airline food containing nuts or found stray nuts on the plane. There were no deaths, although 19 people required treatment in flight with epinephrine to cure breathing problems. Another 14 were treated after landing. Eating nuts caused the most severe reactions. Inhalation of nut dust and skin exposure were the second and third causes of the reactions.

Best time to fly if you have nut allergies: Early morning when planes are cleanest. Bring your own food and, if you're really worried, "wear a surgical mask," Sampson says, although he notes that many people with nut allergies fly and never have a problem.

Hand washing: Aside from avoiding food with nuts, washing your hands with soap is one of the best protections against any accidental allergic exposure, Sampson says. That's because many people, especially children, put their hands in their mouths frequently. No soap and water available? Carry pre-moistened towels to wipe hands and commonly touched surfaces. The good news: Skin exposure alone rarely produces more than annoying rashes or hives.

Age advantage: About 20 percent of children who are allergic to peanuts outgrow their allergy -- a far better outlook than researchers believed just a decade ago. But that's still small compared with the estimated 80 percent of kids who outgrow allergies to other foods including wheat and soy.

Posted by David at May 30, 2006 12:05 PM