Food allergies affect an estimated 15 million Americans, ranging across all ages, environments and social classes. The severity of food allergies can vary widely, from mild bloating, to hives and rashes, to the most severe reaction called anaphylaxis. This is a life-threatening reaction, and is the fear of everyone suffering from or living with a food allergy. So far, there is no treatment for food allergies other than a strict avoidance of the allergen. Recent research, however, has revealed a promising method that, with time, can potentially start to turn the tide and pave the way for long-term health, safety and peace of mind.
Current Food Allergy Treatments
While there are not any preventative treatments for food allergies, there are a number of different recommended treatments when a food allergy exposure occurs, depending on the severity of a child’s reaction. For mild reactions, such as hives, a topical or ingestible antihistamine, similar to those recommended for seasonal allergies, is administered at the discretion of the child’s parents and a doctor need not be involved. For a reaction as serious as anaphylaxis, however, an epinephrine (adrenaline) shot must be administered immediately and emergency medical services need to be called right away.
What Is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy is a new type of allergy treatment that has been developed in the last few years. Unlike epinephrine and antihistamines, which are only used to help mitigate the severity of an allergic reaction after exposure, immunotherapy could become the first preventative food allergy treatment, helping patients prevent a food allergy reaction even if exposure occurs. The basic concept behind oral immunotherapy is the introduction of small, closely monitored doses of the known allergen in an attempt to build up a tolerance, or even immunity, over time. This desensitization process has already proven effective in reducing or even preventing allergic reactions to certain amounts of food. Desensitization is not, however, permanent, and the patient must be exposed to his or her allergen regularly.
There are several types of immunotherapy currently undergoing clinical trials:
Oral Immunotherapy: Oral immunotherapy is a very promising treatment for food allergies, with preliminary trials showing up to an 80 percent effectiveness rate. With this approach, a powdered form of an allergen is mixed with a harmless food and introduced in slowly increased doses over a number of weeks until the patient is desensitized enough to tolerate sup to a small serving without experiencing a reaction. Interestingly, researchers are studying the effects of oral immunotherapy when combined with an asthma medication called omalizumab. So far, trials indicate that the addition of omalizumab helps minimize the risk of allergic reactions during the desensitization process.
Sublingual Immunotherapy: This immunotherapy approach is similar to oral immunotherapy, except that the allergen is administered in small doses under the tongue rather than swallowed. So far, sublingual immunotherapy has not proven as effective as oral immunotherapy. It is, however, less likely to trigger a severe allergic reaction and so is considered a safer approach. In time, this approach may be tweaked or combined with oral immunotherapy to be more effective without compromising patient safety.
Antigen-Specific Tolerance Therapy: The newest treatment approach, antigen-specific tolerance therapy, is undergoing trials in mice that are allergic to peanuts. The idea is to effectively turn off the immune system response to a known allergen by introducing allergen proteins attached to the body’s own blood cells. So far, the treatment appears to be working on the lab mice. While these results are promising, many more studies are needed before the treatment is deemed safe enough to be tested on humans.
Immunotherapy may sound like a risky treatment—it involves deliberate exposure to a known allergen, after all—and many parents of children with food allergies are rightly hesitant to try it. As clinical trials and therapy developments continue, however, immunotherapy could prove in the coming decades to be both a safe and effective treatment for food allergies.