My nephew is one of the 6 million children in the United States with food allergies. He has a severe nut allergy, requiring an epinephrine (adrenaline) injection and immediate trip to the emergency room after contact with someone whose touched or eaten nuts. His rapid onset of life-threatening symptoms includes swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, and hives. He isn’t alone. The number of children with peanut allergies has tripled in the last decade. Every three minutes a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room and every 6 minutes the reaction is one of life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Although children often out-grow their allergies to milk, egg, wheat and soy, this is occurring more slowly than in previous decades. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish or shellfish are generally lifelong allergies.
A food allergy reaction is a learned response, meaning that our bodies learn to overreact to particular food proteins. In this process, the IgE antibody, that is suppose to fight off infections, instead recognizes certain food proteins as abnormal invaders. The IgE antibody tells the body to release histamines and other chemicals that can cause a progressive and sometimes life-threatening reaction (see animated explanation).
Unfortunately there is no cure for food allergies. Unlike other allergies, there aren’t any proven treatments for food allergies either. The only solution has been to avoid the allergy-triggering food. In the case of accidental exposure, antihistamines are taken for mild reactions or epinephrine shots and a trip to the hospital are critical for more severe reactions.
However, promising food allergy therapies are now under study – recently moving from laboratory and animal testing into human clinical trials. The goal is to persuade patients’ immune systems that food allergens aren’t serious threats.
Early clinical trial results have shown promise for three experimental treatments:
• Oral Immunotherapy: Under close medical supervision, patients swallow tiny but increasingly larger amounts of the allergy-triggering food in order to build up immunity. It is being tested for peanut, egg and milk allergies.
• Sublingual Immunotherapy: Liquid containing allergy-triggering food proteins is placed under the tongue, where it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. It is being tested for a variety of food allergies.
• Food Allergy Herbal Formula-2 (FAHF-2): Patients take pills comprised of a nine-herb formula that is based on traditional Chinese medicine. This therapy alters the global immune response, rather than that of a single allergen, so it could treat patients allergic to multiple foods. It is being tested for peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish allergies.
In addition, scientists are trying to understand how food allergies develop in order to help prevent them. For instance, recent studies indicate that early skin exposure to a food protein leads to allergic sensitization, but early oral exposure to a food allergen induces tolerance.
These new studies should give hope to the 15 million people in the United States with food allergies. In order to help educate people about food allergies, the fourteenth annual Food Allergy Awareness Week is May 13-19.