If you don’t remember much from your childhood about peanut-free lunch tables in the cafeteria or kids walking around armed with EpiPens, that’s because food allergies weren’t nearly as big of a deal as they are now. In the past few decades, there has been a meteoric rise in the prevalence of children’s food allergies. They now affect 8 percent of all children, and those are just the diagnosed cases. That means that in a classroom of 30 kids, at least two students will have diagnosed food allergies. Although food allergies are less common in adults, they are still much more pervasive than they used to be and now affect two percent of adults.
But even as this problem has been growing, good treatment options have been slow to catch up. In fact, until recently, doctors have simply told patients to stay away from trigger foods. This can be difficult, though, with allergy-causing foods lurking in all kinds of unsuspected places. Nuts, for example, can make their way into supposedly nut-free candy and baked goods at processing plants. And while people with wheat allergy may steer clear of obvious culprits like bread and pasta, they may be surprised to find wheat in soy sauce, ice cream, and hot dogs.
Another challenge with the avoidance method is that one third of all food allergy sufferers are allergic to multiple items. Imagine being allergic to wheat, milk, and eggs. Eating would become a real chore if you had to sidestep all of those mainstays.
Immunotherapy for Allergies
Thankfully, there is now another option for allergy sufferers besides just avoidance: immunotherapy. Immunotherapy involves exposing the body to tiny amounts of allergy triggers over time. This helps the body grow accustomed to these triggers and stop overreacting to them. Immunotherapy in the form of allergy shots (subcutaneous immunotherapy or SCIT) has been used for many years to treat environmental allergies. With SCIT, a solution containing extracts of common pollens is injected into the patient’s skin and absorbs into the bloodstream where it can work its desensitizing magic.
This type of immunotherapy has not been found to be safe and effective for food allergies, but other types of immunotherapy—including sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) and oral immunotherapy (OIT)—have. Sublingual immunotherapy involves placing liquid droplets, which containing allergenic food proteins, under the tongue. Oral immunotherapy relies on small amounts of allergenic foods in solid form. Trials at Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and Mt. Sinai School for Medicine have confirmed the effectiveness of SLIT and OIT as successful forms of food allergy treatment—including peanut, egg, and milk allergy treatment. For more information, patients can talk to their allergy doctor about food allergy treatment through oral or sublingual immunotherapy.
Is it Hereditary?
Food allergies are believed to be 70 percent genetic and 30 percent environmental. This may make you wonder why allergies are increasing so rapidly. Studies have found that the environment can actually affect genetics as chemicals from the environment that potentially increase a person’s risk for allergies can attach themselves to the genes. These acquired epigenetic changes can then be passed on to subsequent generations. On the flip side, though, immunotherapy has also been shown to alter genes in a way that makes people less likely to pass the allergies that once afflicted them on to their offspring.
Because they have increased so rapidly, food allergies are pushing themselves onto center stage, and science is responding by trying to develop new ways to predict and manage them. The findings regarding immunotherapy as an effective food allergy treatment are exciting, and plenty of new developments are on the horizon with the promise of relief from the misery and fear inspired by food allergies.