A PATCH FOR PEANUT ALLERGIES?
You are probably familiar with transdermal patches that deliver medications through the skin. They are used to treat a wide range of health problems – there’s a nicotine patch for smokers, a birth control patch, a patch for pain control and a nitroglycerin patch that can help prevent heart attacks. Now researchers are looking to use a patch to help those with peanut allergies.
The root of the problem with peanut allergies is that the immune system has a massive, inappropriate reaction to benign peanut proteins. This causes inflammation and swelling in the body, and it becomes dangerous when this reaction happens in the throat and airway in a process called anaphylaxis. If untreated, the swelling can quickly close off the airway, resulting in death.
The so-called ‘peanut patch’ would contain peanut oil and slowly expose your body to peanut protein in small does through the skin. Through a process of desensitization, the patch would (in theory) allow the immune system to become accustomed to the peanut proteins and thus reduce the vigorous, dangerous immune response. Desensitization therapy is already done for a number of other allergies (including hay fever and seasonal allergies) but no such treatment is yet in use for peanut allergy, partly because any exposure to even a small amount of peanut protein can be deadly. As a result, you should never try desensitization on your own, it should always be done under medical supervision in a clinical setting, in case emergency intervention is required.
Researchers are only now starting Phase 1 testing of the peanut patch, which means that it is going through preliminary assessment on a small number of people under strict conditions to see if it’s safe, so it’s far from being available for purchase. But the very idea of it is exciting for the approximately 1% of the population who have a peanut allergy, because it could make their lives much less stressful. About 1 in 5 children with a peanut allergy will eventually outgrow it in adulthood, but for the majority of people with this severe food allergy it’s a lifelong struggle to be vigilant and prepared.
If you have a peanut allergy there are two key approaches to keeping yourself safe:
1. Prevent exposure to peanuts – this includes maintaining a peanut-free environment, carefully reading food labels and discussing your allergy with anyone preparing your meals, and avoiding eating anything for which you don’t know the ingredients
2. Carry your epinephrine injector at all times – if you are accidentally exposed to peanuts you will only have seconds or minutes to stop a potentially deadline anaphylactic reaction, so having the injector close at hand is vital (and of course, call 9-1-1 immediately as well)
Keep in mind that if the peanut patch ever proves to be effective, people with peanut allergies would still have to take precautions - it’s just that accidental peanut exposures would hopefully lead to less dangerous reactions for someone who has been desensitized with the patch.
For an overview of food allergy information see: http://www.aaaai.org/patients/publicedmat/tips/foodallergy.stm