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OIT

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What Food Allergies Can Teach Our Kids

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Every now and again, I like to write about my personal experience as a mom managing food allergies. Parenting is no easy feat, but it’s especially tough when you're raising a child that could stop breathing if accidentally exposed to certain foods.   

Although peanut and tree nut allergies are not something I would have chosen for my daughter, there has been an upside to her having food allergies. For one, our family has to look more carefully at the ingredients we put into our bodies, which has made us healthier eaters. The greatest gifts, however, have come in the form of life skills and values my daughter has learned at a young age.

Below are a few that immediately come to mind. 

Diligence. Now that my daughter is entering kindergarten, she’s starting to take charge of carrying emergency medicines to and from activities and storing them appropriately. Increasingly, she’s having to brave the world without me. Whether at school, summer camp, or a birthday party, she knows it’s her responsibility to ask if a food is safe when I’m not there to help her read the label. 

What has she learned? To be detail oriented and persistent—qualities that will help her in countless facets of life. 

Compassion. We talk to our daughter often about things that make her unique, like food allergies and wearing glasses. I find these talks help her relate to the differences between people both physically and situationally. Last year we saw a homeless family outside of a local store asking for money. After she asked me a few questions to better understand the situation, she decided we should give them the snacks we brought in the car so that they wouldn’t be hungry. Cue my proud mama heart swelling! 

Compassion is one of those life skills that will serve her well as a child AND as an adult. 

Time Management. It takes time managing food allergies! Label reading and meal planning take a lot longer when you have to think about a food allergy. Our daughter completed OIT for her nut allergies in 2017, and while it’s now been a year since we finished, she still has a daily maintenance dose of several nuts and a mandatory hour-long rest period afterward. It can be hard to find time to squeeze in her maintenance dose and rest time each day (today it was sandwiched between summer school and a T-ball game!).

Showing her how we map out each day and carve out time to manage her food allergies has been a great lesson in time management that will serve her well as she enters “big kid school” this fall. 

Bravery. It can be hard to stand up for yourself, let alone when you’re a small child! Food allergies have nudged her to become her own self-advocate (and a food allergy advocate!). I’d like to think we’ve led by example as her champion and guardians all these years and I’m proud to see her now standing up for herself (and her health). 

I hope her bravery goes beyond self-advocacy. I hope her newfound courage leads her to try new things, persevere through adversity, and stand up for others in need.

We all have moments when food allergies feel defeating, inconvenient, and stressful. But for all the woes allergies bring, they can also be a gift. It all boils down to perspective. Adversity breeds strength, and I see that strength in my daughter more and more each day.

-      Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team

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What To Expect When You’re Expecting…An Oral Food Challenge

My daughter, moments after finishing her first oral food challenge.

My daughter, moments after finishing her first oral food challenge.

This topic is pretty fresh in my mind as my daughter underwent an oral food challenge to macadamia nuts last week. In case you’re not familiar with an oral food challenge (OFC), or haven’t experienced one yet, let us fill you in.

Today, oral food challenges are considered the gold standard for food allergy diagnosis in children and adults alike. Skin prick and blood tests aid in diagnosis, but they are prone to error—false positives are not uncommon. You can read more about food allergy diagnosis methods in our blog Food Allergies Today: An Expert Q & A.

There are typically three reasons why you might do an oral food challenge:

1. You or your child tested positively for a food allergy but have never actually eaten the food.

2. You or your child tested positively for a food allergy and have eaten the food before with no symptoms.

3. To see if you or your child has outgrown a known food allergy.

An oral food challenge is usually held at your allergist’s office over a few-hour period. The allergist administers tiny amounts of the potential allergen in gradually increasing doses over a set period of time (usually 3-6 hours). In my experience, the whole challenge start to finish lasts around 4 hours. Once the full serving is administered, the doctor will typically observe the patient for a couple hours to monitor for signs or symptoms of an allergic reaction. If symptoms occur at any point during an OFC, the challenge stops and symptoms are treated immediately.

Importantly, not everyone is a good candidate for an OFC. According to allergist Dr. Jordan Scott, “when asthma is flaring or when patients are ill, we don’t challenge.”

Let’s talk about what to expect. First, block off the day, because even if the OFC is expected to last only a few hours, the experience can be emotionally draining and stressful. Being prepared and understanding the purpose and procedure is incredibly important! Below you’ll find a list of things to prepare ahead of time so you can tackle the challenge head on. 

Ask your allergist what he/she needs you to bring. He may ask you to provide the food for the challenge, or his office may provide the food (we’ve done both). If you’re providing the food, make sure you’ve done your homework to ensure it’s not processed in a shared facility or processed on a shared line with something else you’re allergic to. For example, when we challenged sesame a couple years ago, we ensured the hummus we brought wasn’t processed in a shared facility with nuts: my daughter’s other allergen. We didn’t want cross-contact playing a factor.

Ask your allergist what you should stop doing. Ask your allergist what medicines you need to stop taking before the challenge. Our allergist requires that we stop giving our daughter her daily antihistamines for seasonal allergies a few days before the challenge, as that could mask reaction symptoms during the OFC. Additionally, she cannot take any asthma medicine that day. However, if asthma symptoms start flaring, there’s a chance they’ll want to play it safe and reschedule your challenge anyway—clear communication with your allergist is key!

Bring lots of activities for entertainment. If the trial is for a child, I’ve found that new activities, games, and library books always help to hold their attention longer. Having a favorite stuffed “friend” or something that the child associates with comfort is helpful too. If you’re an adult, a good book and your favorite digital gadgets will probably suffice!

Pack safe snacks. If the challenge goes well, you may be at the allergist’s office for several hours. However, the tiny doses of food your allergist administers aren’t likely to fill you up ☺. We like to bring some of our daughter’s favorite tried and true snacks that we know are safe (another way to avoid bringing cross-contact into the equation!). Since the challenge is at an allergist’s office, and there will likely be patients in the near vicinity with food allergies, it’s an added bonus if you can bring foods that are free from the most common allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, egg, milk, and soy. I also bring disinfectant wipes in case the food spills so that I can clean it up properly for the next allergic patient. Good food allergy etiquette is important!

Bring your emergency medications. While this may seem unnecessary (hello, you’re at the allergist’s office ☺), it’s important. There’s always a small chance of a delayed reaction, and if that happens on the way home, you’ll want to have your epinephrine and antihistamines at the ready.

Stay calm. If you’re a parent accompanying a child to an OFC, it helps to remain calm if your child experiences an allergic reaction. “If a reaction occurs, it is important for parents to remain calm because children can pick up on the anxiety and feed on that,” allergist Dr. John Lee advises. If your child experiences a reaction, Dr. Lee also suggests that parents avoid calling it a “failed challenge” in front of their child, noting that “this can make a child feel as if they’ve somehow failed, or done something wrong.”

Leave the siblings at home. If the food challenge is for your child, it’s smart to leave any siblings at home so you can stay focused—especially in the event of an allergic reaction. Best-case scenario, your child doesn’t have a reaction and it ends up being quality time with your babe. If you’re an adult, you’ll still want to bring someone with you for support and to make sure you get home safely.

Set a course of action/next steps. Once the challenge is complete, talk to your allergist about next steps. If the challenge went well, make sure you know how to proceed with exposure to the food moving forward. If it didn’t, they may recommend future testing/follow up, and possibly strict avoidance of the food.

I hope you find these tips helpful! After experiencing my daughter’s first oral food challenge, I felt far better equipped to take on the second. In case you’re wondering, she passed her OFC to macadamia nuts! This is one nutritious food we can add back into her diet. Hooray!

If you’re interested in discussing oral food challenges further, let me know. We’ve been through several, so I know the ropes pretty well!

- Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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Cross-Contact or Cross-Contamination: What’s the Difference?

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I’ll be honest with you: distinguishing between cross-contact and cross-contamination used to throw me off. Many people in the food allergy community (my past-self included) often mistakenly use the terms interchangeably.  

The confusion is so widespread that even food manufacturers and allergists mix up the two. In fairness, cross-contact is a new(ish) term, so some have gotten into the habit of labeling everything involving inadvertent food exposure as cross-contamination. “I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always use the terms correctly,” says allergist Dr. Jordan Scott. “Many of us were trained to use cross-contamination to refer to allergens inadvertently getting into another food source.”

To help clear up some of the confusion, we’re breaking down the difference between the two terms in this post.

Let’s start with some examples.

Cross-contact: This occurs when a food allergen in one food (let’s say milk protein in cheese) touches another food (let’s say a hamburger), and their proteins mix, transferring the allergen from one food to another. These amounts are often so small that they can’t be seen!

In this example, let’s assume I have a severe milk allergy. If the cheese touches the burger, cross-contact has occurred. Even if the cheese is removed from the burger, trace amounts of the milk allergen likely remain on the burger making it unsafe to eat and posing the risk of an allergic reaction.

It’s important to note that most food proteins (with few exceptions, like heat labile proteins) CANNOT be cooked out of foods, no matter how high the temperature. When our daughter underwent oral immunotherapy for her peanut allergy, we were given the option to bake the peanut flour into muffins for her to consume. We were told that the high oven temperature would not affect the protein structure of the peanut flour.

Cross-contamination: Cross-contamination occurs when a bacteria or virus is unintentionally transferred from one food product to another, making the food unsafe. The key mark of distinction is that cross-contamination generally refers to food contamination, not food allergens.

A couple examples: you cut raw chicken on a cutting board before you put it on the grill. You then cut peppers on that same cutting board. The raw chicken juice touches the peppers, therefore posing a risk for bacteria. Or say you purchase a cantaloupe that unknowingly has listeria. The knife used to dice up the melon is now a vehicle for cross-contamination. Unlike cross-contact, properly cooking contaminated foods generally CAN eliminate the food-borne offender.

Is it all making sense now? In short, when referring to food allergens, use cross-contact, and when referring to food-borne bacteria or viruses, use cross-contamination. Easy peasy.

We hope our explanation cleared up any confusion. Now that you’re a cross-contact pro, here’s a guide with tips on how to avoid cross-contact.

Want to discuss this topic further? Still confused? Feel free to reach out to me at mnohe@allergyamulet.com. I’m always game for a good food allergy chat!  :)

-       Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team

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OIT—Is It For Me?

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 mnohe@allergyamulet.com for more on the parent perspective—I’m always up for a good food allergy chat!

- Meg, Director of Strategic Development

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Fact, Fad, or Fiction? A Brief History of Early Allergy Science

This guest post was written by Theresa MacPhail—assistant professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Stevens Institute of Technology. 

“Many physicians think that idiosyncrasies to foods are imaginary.” – Albert Rowe, MD (1951)

Two years ago, my 63-year-old aunt developed hives. Large red wheals covered her entire body, and the slightest pressure to her skin—including wearing clothes—caused her pain. Over the course of her life, she had coped with eczema and the occasional rash, but this was new. This was different.

Her doctor sent her to a dermatologist, who—dumbfounded—sent her back to her doctor. After many medical appointments, blood tests, and rounds of steroids, an allergy specialist asked her to undertake an elimination diet, cutting out several foods. My aunt’s hives immediately cleared, and it was only after she introduced wheat back into her diet that the hives resurfaced. Her diagnosis: a wheat allergy.

My aunt’s experience is an all-too-common tale of food allergy classification: routine misdiagnosis, common misconception, and a general lack of understanding within the broader medical community. What is it about food allergies that make this story so familiar? Why are food allergies and intolerances so difficult to diagnose and treat? It turns out that our troubles with allergy diagnosis have a long and complicated history.

Rose Colds & Sea Anemones: Early Allergy Science

We begin in 1819, when the physician John Bostock presented the first clinical description of hay fever—or summer catarrh—to the medical community. By the mid-1800s, doctors had begun diagnosing patients with “summer” or “rose” colds (which we now call hay fever or seasonal allergies). In 1905, immunologists discovered they could produce an anaphylactic response in animals (injecting toxin from sea anemones into dogs) and began experimenting with allergic reactions in the laboratory. These anaphylactic responses to sea anemones were not considered allergic reactions or “allergies.” That link would be discovered later.

Hay fever and seasonal allergies were relatively easy for clinicians to diagnose with skin tests and desensitization techniques. Desensitization—or allergen immunotherapy—in its early form involved allergens converted into a serum or vaccine and injected into a patient. Leonard Noon and John Freeman discovered allergen immunotherapy in 1911, and this technique is still used for treating seasonal allergies today.

Until the early 20th century, food allergy remained somewhat of a nebulous concept. It was widely recognized, but hadn’t yet been proven. In 1912, Oscar Menderson Schloss breathed legitimacy into food allergy diagnosis and proved its existence. An American pediatrician, Schloss developed a skin scratch test with which he correctly diagnosed egg sensitivity. While this was seen as a breakthrough in allergy detection, skin scratch tests did not produce consistent results, as many patients with obvious clinical allergies didn’t react to these tests.

A leading difficulty with allergy diagnosis (food and seasonal)—both past and present—has been distinguishing allergy symptoms from the bevy of other ailments they mimic. Food allergy reactions are also highly idiosyncratic—meaning that no two patients with an egg or wheat sensitivity will necessarily react to the same degree or in the same fashion. Famed allergy specialist Warren T. Vaughan argued that the greatest difficulty in understanding and studying food allergy is the inconsistency of responses to different exposure levels among individuals. By 1931, after years of practice, Vaughan still couldn’t find logical patterns in the allergy symptoms of his patients. He had no explanation for why two patients reacted differently to equal doses of an allergen, concluding that “allergy to food is always an individual affair.”

By the late 1930s, physicians began realizing that chronic food allergies were far more prevalent among the general population than previously imagined. In some cases, food allergies were considered responsible for patient migraines, hives, intestinal troubles, bladder pain, and asthma. Guy Laroche and Charles Richet—two prominent French allergists at the time—argued that older physicians had failed to properly label food allergies as “alimentary anaphylaxis,” instead classifying these events as medical anomalies. For Laroche and Richet, the vigorous tracking of patient diet and symptoms proved their hypothesis: physicians were failing to recognize anaphylactic episodes to food as the result of an allergic response. This was a breakthrough.

A Fad is Born & Modern Trends

Because allergy diagnosis relied heavily on patient input, and were poorly understood, many doctors dismissed allergies as a response to emotional stress or neurosis. Doctors believed that these patients—the majority of whom were women—overplayed symptoms to garner attention or sympathy. It became a “grab bag” diagnosis, especially in the hands of general practitioners. As diagnoses surged, Samuel Fineberg warned that the glut of allergy research—only a few decades old—had led clinicians to dismiss allergies as just a trend. One prominent allergist observed that older generations regarded food allergy “as a passing fad.” Many today still view food allergies and intolerances as fads, although this is changing.

And while perceptions are evolving, allergy treatments have mostly remained stagnant. Between confirmation of the first food allergy in 1912 and the late 1960s, avoidance was the only prescription for food allergy patients. In 1935, food allergy specialist Dr. Albert Rowe argued that mild allergies couldn’t be diagnosed with skin tests alone, and insisted that elimination diets were a superior remedy to skin testing. He created a guide for physicians and patients, which became widely used among allergists from the late 1930s to as late as the 1980s. Rowe counseled that food allergy should not be dismissed as “mere fancy” but taken as medical fact, and helped shift the perception of food allergies in the medical community.

As evidenced in this history, food allergy treatments haven’t changed much. Desensitization for seasonal allergies has been around since the early 1900s, food allergy desensitization (oral immunotherapy), while relatively more recent, still builds off of the same concept of desensitization. With oral immunotherapy, the patient ingests small amounts of the allergic food in gradually increasing amounts. It’s not widely practiced at present, and is only offered by select allergists nationwide.

We can still see the echoes of this history when we look at current debates over food allergy versus food sensitivity designations. Take gluten, for example. While wheat allergy and the autoimmune disorder Celiac Disease are accepted medical conditions, gluten sensitivity is still debated by researchers and the public alike.

There is still much we don’t understand about food allergies and intolerances, but increasing research in this space holds promise for solving these medical mysteries. Fact, fad, or fiction? As history has shown, only through scientific advancements and research will facts eclipse fad and fiction.   

Part Two: Food Allergies Today

Stay tuned for part two of this story as we discuss the modern world of food allergy—epinephrine auto-injectors entering the market, the staggering increase in food allergy diagnosis, the LEAP study, and oral immunotherapy.

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