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Promising approach helps reduce peanut allergy risk

Last Updated Mar 4, 2016 3:55 PM EST

New research may help protect future generations of children from potentially life-threatening peanut allergies.

A study published Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine builds on the discovery that introducing peanut foods early into the diets of infants who are at a high risk of developing a peanut allergy significantly reduces the risk they will go on to develop that allergy.

Nut and other food allergies have risen sharply in the U.S. and Europe in recent years, prompting urgent research efforts to explore potential ways to prevent and treat the problem.

Last year, a team of British researchers found that if infants at high risk for developing peanut allergies began eating peanut products frequently between the ages of 4 and 11 months, they were less likely to be allergic when tested at age 5. Infants are considered high-risk for peanut allergies if they have eczema or egg allergies.

That groundbreaking study, called LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy), turned decades of conventional wisdom on its head. For years, doctors had advised parents to delay feeding their infants foods that might prompt allergic reactions until they got older.

The new study out today -- a follow-up to the LEAP study -- sought to find out whether or not this protection against peanut allergies would last an additional year, even if the children stopped stopped eating foods containing peanuts.

Researchers found the answer to be yes.

"It would appear early consumption of peanuts gives you long-lasting protection against peanut allergy," lead study author Dr. Gideon Lack, head of the department of pediatric allergy at King's College London, told CBS News.

The findings "exceeded our expectations," he said in a press statement.

Lack and his team enrolled over 500 children from the original study -- half of whom had been eating peanuts regularly and half not -- and instructed all of their caregivers to avoid feeding them peanuts for the 12 months after the initial five-year study period.

The researchers found that at 6 years of age, there was only a slight increase in risk of peanut allergy in the children who had consumed peanuts during first study period, from 3.6 percent after five years to 4.8 percent after six years. The researchers said this increase was not statistically significant.

On the other hand, peanut allergy was significantly more prevalent in those who had avoided eating peanuts in the original study, at 18.6 percent.

The research was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The Associated Press reports a panel of experts convened by NIAID has drafted new guidelines recommending that children begin trying peanut foods as early as 4 to 6 months of age.

Following the original LEAP study last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised their recommendations to prevent peanut allergies in high risk infants and endorses giving them food containing peanuts before their first birthday.

However, experts urge parents to consult with an allergist or their pediatrician before introducing their children any peanut products for the first time.

The study authors said that more research is needed to determine if the protective benefits of the early peanut intervention last longer term and whether or not the strategy will be effective for other potential food allergies.

"We need more research to better understand the mechanisms behind the development and prevention of allergic responses to peanut, and how this might translate to other food allergies," said study co-author Dr. George Du Toit, consultant in pediatric allergy at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London. "However, it is reassuring that the highly protective intervention demonstrated in LEAP was not only safe, nutritionally favorable and acceptable to participant families but also sustained even with cessation of peanut consumption for 12 months."

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com