If you're concerned about your little one, talk to your child's doctor. It may be okay to introduce milk, eggs, nuts, and other foods earlier than you think. The timing should be based on your family history, whether your child has other signs of allergy (such as eczema), and when you feel comfortable offering the foods. And if you have a newborn and are thinking way in advance, research suggests that breastfeeding for at least four months may lower the risk of allergies.
THEN: The cause of allergies was a mystery.
NOW: Science is closing in on answers. One of the most prevalent beliefs is the "hygiene hypothesis": the idea that modern kids are exposed to so many fewer germs and allergens that their immune systems don't get "trained" to deal with them as young children (a point underscored in many of the nut studies). Another theory points to recent changes in the food industry. The number of highly processed foods on the market has skyrocketed--and children are eating more of them than ever before, which may affect the immune system's ability to accept them, says Wesley Burks, M.D., an allergy expert at Duke University Medical Center. (An allergic reaction occurs in response to the basic proteins in a food. During the refining process, those proteins get altered, which may trigger the body to rebel against this unidentifiable substance.)
THEN: Treatment was not an option. The only way to manage a food allergy was to avoid the trigger.
NOW: "Curing" allergies looks possible. Several promising strategies are under investigation, including the one that worked for Noah. Doctors gave him small amounts of peanut powder, gradually increasing the dose. The approach seems simple, but, in fact, it's exceedingly complex and not something to be attempted independently. (Repeat: Don't try this at home!) The children who have been treated so far began with carefully measured, almost microscopic doses of the food they were allergic to. The goal is to reprogram the immune system by activating the cells that build a tolerance to the food while sneaking under the radar of the ones that set off a response.
Other experimental treatments being studied include a Chinese herbal remedy called FAFH-2-a medicine derived from nine herbs that has shown encouraging results in animal studies--and vaccines that, like the oral treatments, are designed to deliver allergenic foods in a way that can desensitize a child's body.
"I believe that in the next few years, the first generation of treatment will be out," says Dr. Burks, although he notes that it's too soon to predict exactly which type of therapy it might be. Future treatments may not totally cure an allergy, he adds, but could raise the threshold of how much of a food a kid could safely eat. "I'm hopeful," says Jenn Williamson of San Diego, whose family rarely takes vacations or eats out because of her daughter Kyla's nut allergies. "I feel like she's missing out on a lot now--and like any parent, I don't want my child to feel excluded." If things keep progressing at the same rapid pace, her wish--and that of millions of other parents--could soon become a reality.