Food allergies are scary. Some kids are so allergic that one tiny peanut can be life threatening. Parents of kids with peanut allergies are terrified that their child may accidentally be exposed at school or a birthday party.

I don’t blame them. I’ve seen children with seriously severe allergic reactions that need medical treatment immediately. And episodes are on the rise. We’re not exactly sure why food allergies have doubled over the past 15 to 20 years and why peanut allergies have quadrupled.

One likely theory is that we have become too clean of a society. We are always hand washing, using sanitizer, sterilizing dishes, not letting our kids eat dirt and therefore our children aren’t being exposed to enough things early on. A recent study showed that kids who grow up in a family that washes dishes by hand have a lower incidence of allergies than those who used a dishwasher.

In addition, previously we held off on introducing infants to potentially allergic foods, which research now shows likely contributed to the dramatic increase we have seen in food allergies. The data from this recent study is very convincing.

In a study funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, a team of researchers rounded up 640 high-risk infants (infants with eczema or egg allergies) age 4 to 11 months, and skin-tested them for peanut allergy. The infants who tested negative as well as mildly allergic to peanut were left in the study. Half of each group ate peanut protein three times a week and half avoided peanuts. At age 5, of the infants who initially tested negative by skin test, nearly 14 percent of those who avoided peanuts developed a peanut allergy, compared with slightly less than 2 percent in the peanut-eating group who got peanut allergies. That’s a seven-fold difference.

Of the infants who initially had a mildly positive skin test, roughly 35 percent of those who avoided peanuts got peanut allergies, compared to the close to 11 percent in the group who received peanuts. Basically, in this study exposing the infants to peanut protein three times a week reduced the incidence of peanut allergy by 70 to 80 percent.

With this new information, it’s no wonder parents are now asking me if and when they should introduce peanut products to their infants. It’s very important for parents to know that whole peanuts are a huge choking hazard, and should never be given to kids under age 3. Even a glob of peanut butter is hard for an infant to move around in their mouth and could potentially cause choking.

Current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics say peanut products can be introduced around 6 months of age in a form that an infant can handle. At around 6 months this is usually a puree. Parents might try a little peanut butter melted into oatmeal. Or you can offer baby a peanut puff snack, such as Bamba.

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Around 8 or 9 months, parents can offer a thin smear of peanut butter to be licked off a parent’s clean finger or spread on a thin slice of soft bread.

If you have a family history of food allergies, asthma, environmental allergies or eczema, your child is at a higher risk of developing food allergies. In these cases you must talk to you pediatrician or allergist before you introduce peanuts or peanut products to your child.

Signs of a food allergy can be mild such as a rash or hives (call your pediatrician), while some may be more severe, such as facial swelling and trouble breathing (call 9-1-1 immediately). Food allergies can be life threatening.

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As you introduce new foods to your child’s diet, keep an eye out for signs of a food allergy. Keep a log of symptoms and what your child had to eat or drink within two hours before the symptoms started. It can be helpful to take a photo of the food label and bring it to your doctor’s appointment.

If you have a child with food allergies, you must let everyone know. This includes family members, teachers, friend’s parents, and anyone else who watches your child.

Hopefully this study is just one of many that will help us solve the food allergy question and learn how to prevent and treat food allergies so no parent has to worry about their child accidentally being exposed to a life-threatening food.

Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann is a UCLA-trained pediatrician based in Southern California, an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson and best-selling author.

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