Raising Healthy Kids: Preventing peanut allergies

A recent study said we've been going about preventing peanut allergies all wrong.

Instead of avoiding peanuts, high-risk babies should actually be exposed to them.

Food allergies definitely run in Jennifer Heimall's family.

"My mom had severe food allergies growing up. She had a cow's milk allergy," she said.

Heimall added: "She had a tree nut allergy. I then have a tree nut allergy."

Rather than just hope her sons didn't develop those, too, Jennifer - who is also a doctor - decided to follow science that was new then, suggesting that exposing infants early to tiny amounts of many foods would help prevent reactions.

"With max, we started introducing foods when he was 4 months," she said.

Dr. Jonathan Spergel of Children's Hospital says peanut allergies boomed in the past 20 years, despite extreme efforts to keep high-risk kids away from peanuts.

"Clearly, that strategy didn't work," says Dr. Spergel.

In Israel, where puffed peanut baby snacks are common, allergies are very rare.

So doctors went the other direction, showing that early, frequent exposure tells the developing immune system that peanuts are normal, not harmful.

"The number of peanut allergies actually dropped dramatically - from 50 to 80%," Dr. Spergel says.

Heimall says she didn't know what would happen the first time her older sons had tree nuts, but they came through with flying colors.

"Nobody has any food allergies, knock on wood," she said.

Doctors are still working on the perfect timing and amounts for the exposure.

And some kids will still develop allergies, so parents shouldn't try this without a pediatrician's help.

But Dr. Spergel thinks this could be the future path for treating a wide range of allergies.

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