Feeding your peanut-allergic child peanuts is not easy as a mother—I would know, I do it every day. Your instincts as a parent are to keep your child as far out of harm’s way as possible. But in today’s world, peanuts may be the best management tool we have for my peanut-allergic child.
Let me explain.
My daughter was born with a severe allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. For the first three years of her life, we strictly avoided these foods. She’s now four. Last April, we agreed to undergo an oral food challenge at her allergist’s office to find out if she was still allergic. Her peanut blood test numbers had dropped considerably—this blood test measures levels of Immunoglobulin E (IgE) to individual allergens in the body. IgE is the antibody that triggers food allergy symptoms. Plus, she hadn’t been exposed to peanut since she was a baby. Unfortunately, the oral food challenge outcome wasn’t as we hoped: after ingesting ¼ of a peanut, split into three gradually increasing doses over a 45-minute period, she experienced an anaphylactic event and we had to administer epinephrine. It was an emotional day, to say the least.
After discovering that she was still severely allergic to peanuts, we decided to explore oral immunotherapy: a method of food desensitization that involves re-introducing the immune system to the allergenic food in gradually increasing amounts over time, with the goal of eventual tolerance.
For our family, the results have been life changing. The same little girl that reacted to ¼ of a peanut now eats 12 peanuts daily with zero symptoms. But OIT is not necessarily for everyone, so I’d like to share our family’s journey and offer some insights into the process so that you can determine whether it’s a good fit for you or your child.
If your allergist doesn’t have a clear picture of your allergy severity, treatment may start with an oral food challenge. Once the individual has been identified as an OIT candidate, they are typically provided a juice-like beverage containing tiny amounts of the allergen. This beverage is consumed during the same two-hour period every day. Depending on how quickly a patient builds up a tolerance, your allergist may recommend coming in every week or two for an “updose”—an increase in the amount of allergen consumed. As the immune system grows more tolerant, the patient eventually moves to a powder form (which is typically sprinkled onto food), and finally to solids (e.g., whole nuts).
Importantly, OIT requires a considerable time commitment. Although updosing typically occurs every week or two, the allergen must be consumed every day to build and maintain tolerance. OIT also places constraints on physical activity. During OIT, the patient can only engage in calm, quiet activity half an hour before dosing, and at least two hours afterwards (during their observation period). This ensures that the immune system doesn’t get “revved up” unnecessarily and trigger an allergic reaction.
Is OIT perfect? Not quite. For the foreseeable future, my daughter must eat 12 peanuts with a two-hour observation period everyday. However, we can now choose the time frame each day, and expect the observation period to shorten over time. There’s also a measure of unpredictability. On two occasions, our daughter developed a couple hives after her prescribed dose, and we had to give her antihistamines. Other times, we had to lower her dose because she was sick, which can compromise the immune system. It is these situations, and the risk of producing a more serious adverse outcome, that discourages many allergists from taking up the practice. Indeed, OIT is still relatively controversial. Additionally, OIT treatments are still in their nascent stages and are not widely practiced, so there is less data and information available.
Importantly, not every food-allergic child or adult is a good candidate for OIT. For example, if a patient has severe environmental allergies, acute asthma, or eosinophilic esophagitis, they will not likely qualify for OIT. Additionally, OIT treatment is not available for all allergens—desensitization to peanuts, for example, is far more common practice than, say, shellfish.
If you think OIT may be of interest to your family, I’d encourage you to talk to your allergist and seek out additional information and guidance. You can also reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more on the parent perspective—I’m always up for a good food allergy chat!
- Meg, Director of Strategic Development