Could the best way to treat allergies be exposure to what you’re allergic to?
That is, could a child who could die from eating nuts be able to tolerate them, if fed minute amounts that are slowly increased?
A similar treatment already exists for treating hay fever and severe insect sting allergies. In immunotherapy, people are given shots with gradually increasing amounts of their allergens. The treatment is based on an understanding of what allergies are, an immune or other response to a substance — pollen, dust mites, certain foods, certain medicines — that does not affect most other people. Those with allergies have an oversensitive immune system which, when an allergen is present, responds by releasing chemicals such as histamines, which cause symptoms such as a runny noise or coughing.
Treating allergies with shots can take years and there’s no guarantee that it works for everyone. The treatment has not been used for food allergies, due to the dangers of someone having a severe reaction. Other treatments for allergies include medications, nutritional supplements and plain old avoidance: if you’re allergic to eggs, don’t eat them, has been the usual advice.
Food Allergies On the Rise in Children
Today, EpiPens have become commonplace; no one bats an eye to hear that a classroom, or even an entire school, is “peanut-free.” Given that 5.9 million children in the U.S. now have food allergies and 2.3 million adults do –that is, as a New York Times magazine article points out, 1 out of every 13 children in a U.S. classroom and 1 in 10 preschoolers aged 3 to 5 years have food allergies — parents are eager for a treatment besides avoiding foods.
Children don’t seem to be growing out of their food allergies as fast as they used to. Having food allergies has been connected to having asthma (the CDC has found that 29 percent of children with food allergies also have this) and with impaired growth. Children with food allergies have a lower body mass index and those with more than two allergies are shorter.
There are also social implications for kids with food allergies. They can find themselves left out from activities with peers, be it grabbing a pizza slice or sampling the birthday cupcakes with your class. These are little exclusions that can mean a lot.
A Revolutionary Treatment?
Kari Nadeau, a doctor and researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine, has been studying children with allergies to multiple foods, from nuts to wheat to soy to corn to fruits to eggs. She’s overseen treating kids with oral immunotherapy, which seeks to desensitize children from multiple food allergies by giving them minute amounts of many allergens all at one time — important because it can take a couple of years to desensitize a child from just one food. If a child with multiple food allergies is being desensitized to each one by one, he or she would be in treatment until adulthood.
Some children with multiple food allergies have gone through Nadeau’s treatment, under her careful supervision and in a hospital clinic due to the dangers of having a serious, life-threatening response. As reported in a New York Times magazine article, after repeated trials, some kids can now eat foods that had been fatal for them to get near.
No one has yet figured out why so many more children have food allergies and, too often, to more than one food. One theory, the “hygiene hypothesis,” suggests that contemporary Western society’s emphasis on (if not obsession with) sanitation and fighting germs has led to children growing up without any exposure to bacteria and parasites and, as a result, having underdeveloped immune systems. But this idea has been disputed by reports about the rate of allergies rising among children in large urban areas around the world (Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai) and by a study that found that, while children raised on farms often have lower rates of allergies to animals and pollen, they still had the same rate of food allergis.
Given all this, as well as numerous reports about the mislabeling of foods — just because a product is “nut-free,” can you really trust the manufacturer? — Nadeau’s desensitization treatment offers hope to many kids and their families.
Would you try this treatment? Or is it better to “play it safe” and learn to live with your allergies?
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