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Discovering that your baby or toddler has a food allergy is a stressful moment for any parent. Peanuts are responsible for one of the most common food allergies in the United States, with over 2% of children thought to be allergic. And for children under four, there is currently no treatment – with the exception of a promising new skin patch that could increase peanut tolerance and decrease the severity of reactions.
As a form of immunotherapy, the goal of the Viaskin Peanut patch is to build up a child's tolerance so that if they are accidentally exposed to a small amount of peanuts, such as in a restaurant or on an airplane, they will have a far more mild, and potentially life-saving, reaction.
The patch was recently tested in a clinical trial involving 362 toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3. The toddlers wore a patch between their shoulder blades 22 hours a day for a year, with two-thirds receiving a tiny amount of peanut protein (250 micrograms – equivalent to a thousandth of a peanut) and the others wearing a placebo patch. By delivering peanut protein through the skin, the patch helps the immune system learn to modify its response to the protein.
Although there were some limitations to the study, including a lack of racial diversity among the children, the results are promising. After a year, two-thirds of those who had worn the peanut protein patch could safely tolerate up to four peanuts, compared to just one-third of those who had worn the placebo. Viaskin Peanut has already been studied in older children, adolescents, and adults, but appears most effective in toddlers, likely due to their especially malleable immune systems.
Those pesky peanuts:
- Though degrees of severity vary among children, common peanut allergy symptoms include nausea, hives, shortness of breath, digestive issues, and even life-threatening anaphylaxis (swelling in the throat, difficulty breathing). Some children will outgrow their allergy, yet for others, it will worsen.
- In 2018, a report stated that peanut allergies have become three times more common in the United States than they were two decades ago, with no definitive cause.
- The only FDA-approved peanut allergy treatment for children (aged 4 and older) is a powder known as Palforzia that can be mixed with food. Like Viaskin Peanut, it aims to build up peanut tolerance and thus decrease the likelihood of a severe reaction.
- Viaskin Peanut has not yet been submitted for FDA approval, but more safety data will be needed before the company can apply. Many of the study participants experienced side effects, mainly skin reactions at the patch site, though some experienced anaphylaxis. Understandably, children with severe allergies were not included in the study due to safety concerns, so it's unclear whether they would ever be able to use the patch as a treatment.