The number of people with food allergies has dramatically increased over the last 2 decades, spawning a food allergy epidemic in this country.
An estimated 15 million people in the U. S. have a food allergy, and according to the journal Pediatrics, 5.9 million of them are children. The most common food allergies are peanuts, tree nuts — which include almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts — milk, eggs and seafood.
“Nobody truly, truly knows why, but one theory, and one that I think makes sense, goes along with the hygiene hypothesis,” said Dr. Ravi Karnani, an allergist/immunologist at Akron Children’s Hospital, citing the development of antibiotics and today’s sanitation systems as examples. “The immune system has deviated away from these classic infections that maybe they had 200 years ago and it gets programmed in the allergy realm because we don’t get the same encounters in the environment that we used to get.”
The good news is researchers are testing promising new treatments. A recent article on NBCNews.com points to 2 treatments that are desensitizing children who suffer from these common food allergies and giving them the chance to taste foods that once would have sent them straight to the hospital.
“Granted a patient may not be able to eat mounds of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, but they might be able to tolerate accidents to the food,” said Dr. Karnani. “The nice thing about that is people can feel like they can live life. They don’t feel trapped. They don’t feel like they’re living life by chance.”
The first treatment involves a skin patch that contains a small quantity of the food allergen’s protein, which the top layers of the skin absorb.
The second and more treatment, oral immunotherapy, involves feeding patients a fraction of the food allergen. The dose gradually increases over several months until the patient reaches his level of tolerance.
For example, he said, a child may start with milk that is diluted 10-fold and receives as little as a few drops a day. That amount would slowly be increased over several months until he may be drinking 2 to 3 ounces of undiluted milk a day without any side effects.
Dr. Karnani doesn’t predict a slow down in the number of people suffering from food allergies anytime soon, but he’s hopeful there will be relief for them very soon.
“I can’t say how quickly, but I’m hoping something is doable in the next couple years,” he said. “We’re not far away. There’s finally something on the horizon.”