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Nut Allergy - What is Nut Allergy and What Causes Nut Allergy

Updated on October 3, 2015
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Haris is a registered dietitian and health blogger providing clinical counseling. He writes under name of Bilaras on health blogs.

Nuts allergy

Nuts are classified as fruits, in their appearance they are hard shelled and contain seeds, even though the seeds are not exposed as the nuts are opened or cracked. Biologically they are described as indehiscent fruit of plants. Botany describes nuts as dry fruits which contain one and sometimes two, seeds. When a nut becomes mature, its outermost area is said to be stony or hard. These fruits are high in oil content which makes them a great source of energy, they are said to be a nutrition powerhouse.

“They are low in sodium and rich in fiber; contain a significant amount of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and provide the minerals magnesium, potassium and calcium; and contain antioxidants, foliate, vitamin E and plant sterols.” (Nuts: Anti-atherogenic Food? By Alexiadou Kleopatra)

Some common types of nuts are:

1. Almonds
2. Cashew
3. Hazelnuts
4. Peanuts
5. Pecans
6. Pine nuts
7. Pistachios
8. Walnuts
9. Macadamia nuts
10. Brazil nuts
11. Beechnuts
12. Gingko nuts
13. Hickory nuts

What is a Nut allergy?

Nut allergy or tree nut allergy is a common type of food allergy in which there is an overreaction of the immune system due to the consumption of the nuts. The body’s immune system usually fights infection, but its overreaction to a substance called allergen, causes this problem. This form of allergy is most common and affects millions of people worldwide. The most allergic reaction is caused by Walnuts and cashews in the nut family. Statistics say that at least 90 percent of children (or people) diagnosed with tree nut allergies will have them for life, and this will require them to zero the consumption of those nuts in their lifetime.

According to American Public Health Association (APHA), “An estimated 1.8 million Americans have an allergy to tree nuts. Allergic reactions to tree nuts are among the leading causes of fatal and near-fatal reactions to foods.”

Causes of Nut allergy

The main cause of nut allergy is simply the exposure of the dry fruit to a person who has the allergy to begin with. Some people feel a reaction coming on when they have been exposed to just one nut, and sometimes people do not feel the reaction coming on until they have exposed to two or more nuts. Whereas some people have an reaction just by standing next to a tree nut which is being consumed by another person. As we will discuss below (see Nut allergy reaction), the severity of the reaction depends upon an individual.

Technically speaking, when we consume a tree nut (or nut), there are proteins that are present in nuts that trigger a release of histamine. Histamine is the chemical (neuron-transmitter) your body produces when you're having an allergic reaction. So, we can say Histamine is released to counteract the effect. Even though the protein that is being consumed is not necessarily bad for us, our body perceives it to be bad and so allergic reaction to nuts is what we are actually having as a reaction to the histamine that is being released.

wristband can be used as a precautionary measure.
wristband can be used as a precautionary measure.

Symptoms of Nut allergy

Symptoms of the nut allergy can be divided in to symptoms of mild reaction and symptoms of severe reaction.

Of mild reaction:

· Mouth and lips begin to tingle.

· Swelling of the face

· Red spots

· Stomachache or diarrhea

· Urticaria (nettle rash or hives).

· A feeling of tightness around your throat. (like throat closing up)

· Coughing

· Hoarseness

· Itchy, watery, red or swollen eyes.

Of severe reaction

Mild reaction symptoms prevail but they are also accompanied by the following:

· Wheezing

· Difficulty breathing like an asthma-like attack would feel like, or swelling around your throat, trouble breathing

· “A sense of impending doom.”

Medically there is a dilation (opening up) of the blood vessels in the body, which can cause:

· Redness of your skin

· A fast heart rate

· Low blood pressure.

Which is why it is important to immediately to go the emergency room as soon as these symptoms begin to show.

Nut allergy reaction

A severe reaction to nuts is called anaphylaxis, and it can be life threatening. Though the reaction to the nut allergy varies from person to person, this reaction is very dangerous and if the person experiencing it does not get medical attention right away, they can become faint or unconscious or may get even worse, some people even die. It is also important to remember that nut allergic reaction may come back a second time after few hours, so doctors recommend for patients to remain in hospital after the first reaction.

Anaphylaxis can start off as completely mild symptoms but quickly progress in to symptoms like; having trouble breathing or feeling lightheaded like you are going to pass out or swelling all over the body. There are also gastrointestinal symptoms (i.e., vomiting, diarrhea, or cramping)

How to prevent nut allergy?

Nut allergy can be prevented by taking an active role in determining the ingredients of the type of food one eats. For example, by checking the labels of different foods before buying or consuming is a good idea.

Educating oneself about the different types of nuts and foods containing them is always handy; make sure one is aware of the hidden ingredients in different cuisines. Family and friends always play a big role in one’s life, make sure they are aware of the allergies and know what to do in case of a reaction, like carry injectable epinephrine at all times.

Is coconut a nut?

Since October 2006, the FDA identifies coconut as a tree nut (for labeling purposes), even though there are very little incidents of coconut allergic reactions every year in people with allergies to tree nuts. Coconut contains the seed of a drupaceous fruit and doctors do not restrict their intake for tree nuts allergies.

“Coconut allergies are exceedingly rare, with fewer than 10 reported cases” (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network)

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) does not recognize coconut as a nut. There is controversy to whether coconut is a fruit, seed or a nut. Botanists, doctors and people with tree nut allergies each have their own opinions whether it is safe to consume coconut for a person with tree nut allergies.

According to (FAAN),”Coconut is difficult to classify, and even botanists frequently disagree on its classification. The most accepted theory is that coconuts are classified as dry drupes. While it is possible to be allergic to coconut, the cross reactivity for those with tree nut allergies is very rare.”

Some insect bites can be mistaken as nut allergy. You should be well aware of your local habitat and carry out precautionary measures accordingly. Nut allergies can be life threatening so make sure that you are fully aware of people around you that are sensitive to any kind of nuts.


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