A drug long used to treat asthma can help protect people from dangerous – even fatal – food allergies, a study published Sunday in the respected New England Journal of Medicine found.

The randomized study, funded partly by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, tested the drug Xolair (chemical name omalizumab) on 118 children known to be allergic to peanuts and at least one other food, like milk or eggs.

The survey, carried out at 10 US medical centers, found that after treatment 67 percent of the children were able to tolerate a small amount of peanut protein without symptoms. Of 59 other children given a placebo, only 7 percent were able to do so.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug's use for food allergies in adults and children as young as one earlier this month. It was approved more than 20 years ago for use against allergic asthma.

Scientists cautioned, however, that the drug does not mean the allergy-prone can completely drop their guard; they must still try to avoid known allergens. But the drug should reduce dangerous reactions.

Xolair is administered, by injection, every two to four weeks – not easy for the needle-averse.

Still, for people who have had to live in constant fear that unwittingly consuming even a trace of an allergen could result in hospitalization – or worse – the treatment could be "life-changing," said one of the study's leaders, Dr. Robert Wood of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Severe allergic reactions account for an estimated 30,000 emergency-room visits a year in the US.

Xolair is sold by drug companies Roche and Novartis.

© Agence France-Presse