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oral immunotherapy

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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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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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More Tools, More Problems? Food Allergies Since 1960

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

Last December, I wrote a blog post about the early history of food allergies from the 1800s through the 1960-70s. In this installment, we’ll examine more recent food allergy chronicles, current treatments, and diagnosis debates. Despite advances in our understanding of the immune system, and promising developments in allergy-related technologies (like the Allergy Amulet), the lack of a cure or effective treatments for food allergies persists.

The Discovery of IgE

Immunotherapy treatments were first tested in animals, and then cautiously applied in clinical settings to treat both respiratory allergies and food allergies beginning in 1911. The risk of an accidental anaphylactic response was, and is, ever present. Much of the early allergy testing and treatment remained unchanged until the mid-1960s, when two separate research teams discovered immunoglobulin E, or IgE—a molecule that naturally forms in human blood.

IgE’s discovery led to a greater understanding of the inflammatory response that follows allergen exposure, sparking more research around the cause of allergic reactions. By 1975, the first commercially available and reliable blood test for IgE became available for clinical use. IgE testing quickly became a significant aid in allergy diagnosis, since an elevated presence of IgE levels in the blood often indicates a food allergy.

IgE has played an enormous role in subsequent allergy research, diagnosis, and treatment. However, while IgE tests provide information as to the likelihood of having a food allergy, 50-60% of IgE blood tests yield a “false positive” result, creating a great deal of uncertainty in diagnosis. IgE as an allergy biomarker is accordingly far from perfect.

Food Allergies - A Rising Prevalence?

If you follow the news or social media, or have a young child in the school system, it certainly seems that food allergies are on the rise. Although food allergy awareness has increased over the last decade and has become a more popular topic of conversation, the food allergy prevalence rate has been difficult to measure with confidence.

Figures on the national and global food allergy population are unsettled. This is largely because the numbers rely on multiple data sets collected across different methods and research groups. Official estimates place the figure at around 15 million. Adding to this confusion is the difficulty in confirming the presence of an allergy with current diagnostic tools (often IgE testing, discussed above). The majority of food allergy and food intolerance cases depend on self-reporting and sometimes self-diagnosis—and those numbers fluctuate greatly. A recent paper looking at multiple different allergy studies found that “[s]elf-reported prevalence of food allergy varied from 1.2% to 17% for milk, 0.2% to 7% for egg, 0% to 2% for peanuts and fish, 0% to 10% for shellfish, and 3% to 35% for [other foods].” A 2013 paper further suggested that “at least 1%–2% and up to 10% of the US population suffers from food allergies," which based its findings on "self-report, skin prick test (SPT), serum-specific IgE (sIgE), and oral food challenges (OFC).” These reports show that food allergy populations vary based on allergy type, reported severity, geographic region, study design, and testing method.

In short, with no easy and standardized way to diagnose food allergy cases, it is difficult to confirm and measure the perceived rise in the food allergy population.

The LEAP Study and the Future of Oral Immunotherapy

Perhaps the most significant study on food allergy in the last 50 years is the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study by the Immune Tolerance Network. In this study, infants at a higher risk of developing a severe allergy to peanuts were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that would avoid ingesting peanut-containing foods until age 5, and one that would consume a peanut-containing snack (~6 grams of peanut protein) with three or more meals per week until age 5. Of the children who avoided peanut, 17% developed a peanut allergy, compared to only 3% of the children in the control group. In a press release for the study, one of the researchers noted how for decades allergists have recommended that infants avoid consuming allergenic foods, and this study "suggests that this advice was incorrect and may have contributed to the rise in [] peanut and other food allergies.” Indeed, the LEAP study overturned decades of prior advice and shook the allergy research community. The study also gave credence to one of the oldest forms of allergy treatment: immunotherapy. 

After a decade of research, oral immunotherapy is becoming more widely accepted as effective for the most common food allergies (e.g., peanut), but little is known about its long-term effectiveness. If you’re not familiar, oral immunotherapy (OIT) is 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. Although researchers are optimistic about its potential, it is not without its drawbacks. You can learn more about OIT in Allergy Amulet’s blog post here.

The Promise and Peril of Epinephrine

Epinephrine (the hormone adrenaline) was first discovered in 1900 and marketed to treat asthma attacks and surgical shock. By 1906, with the development of a synthetic version, the drug was in common use by clinicians to treat severe asthma attacks. Immunologists and allergists experimented with dosages in the decades following, standardizing treatment protocols.

In 1975, a biomechanical engineer developed the first auto-injector syringe for the military, which was then adapted for use with epinephrine. It wasn’t until 1987, however, that the FDA approved the first epinephrine auto-injector for the general public. Epinephrine auto-injectors proved so effective—and the dosage delivered was so consistent—that it became the standard prescription for anyone suffering from a severe allergy. By the 1990s, food allergy patients were advised to carry one at all times for their safety.

In 2016, the mother of a child with a severe food allergy began a campaign against the dramatic rise in price of one of the most popular epinephrine auto-injector brands: EpiPen. The price of EpiPen surged between 2004 and 2016 – increasing from $100 to over $600. With few competitors on the market, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of the EpiPen, felt no need to lower its prices. The story went viral and sparked debate about pharmaceutical industry pricing policies and access to affordable healthcare. Since the scandal broke, there has been a call to develop alternative and less expensive epinephrine auto-injectors.

The Epi-Pen story—and this post—highlight the urgent need for greater investment in allergy research and innovation. Let’s hope that with new advancements in the coming years, food allergy itself will be history. 

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Food Allergies Today: An Expert Q & A

There are many unknowns in the food allergy world today. Why are food allergies on the rise? What can I do to prevent my child from developing a food allergy? How do I find out if I have a food allergy or intolerance, or if my child has one? With the help of two of our medical advisors, Dr. Jordan Scott and Dr. John Lee, we have answered some of these common food allergy questions to help you dine with confidence! Let’s get started.

1) What is a food allergy and how does it differ from a food intolerance?

A food allergy is an immune system reaction. Your immune system is comprised of five different types of immunoglobulins/antibodies (IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG, and IgM). If you have a food allergy, IgE is the responsive antibody. When exposed to a food allergen, IgE attaches to the allergen, mistaking it as a foreign intruder. This IgE-allergen compound then binds to immune cells, triggering a release of histamine and other chemicals that produce an allergic reaction. Symptoms can affect the central nervous, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems, and produce epidermal symptoms such as hives, rashes, or eczema. In the most extreme cases, a food-allergic reaction produces anaphylaxis, a life-threatening response that requires immediate medical treatment.

Food intolerances often affect gastrointestinal function, but they can also impact the central nervous system, respiratory health, and skin. The main difference between a food allergy and intolerance is that, although intolerance symptoms can be severe, they are not life threatening and will not produce anaphylaxis.

2) What are the leading theories for the significant increase in food allergies? 

Between 1997 and 2011, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent, according to the CDC. Unfortunately, there is no clear answer as to why. Below are some of the leading theories, in no particular order.

Theory One: Changes in our food system

Over the past few decades, our agricultural system has undergone a considerable transformation, including the introduction of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), increased pesticide application, and the addition of numerous chemicals to our foods. This theory suggests that these chemicals and modified foods are affecting our bodies and immune systems, particularly our gut health, thereby increasing our susceptibility to food allergies and intolerances.

Theory Two: Hygiene hypothesis

The second theory is the “hygiene hypothesis,” suggesting that our modern world is too clean, and our reduced exposure to bacteria is weakening our immune systems. Some research also suggests that the overuse of antibiotics in animals and the rise of prescription medication is killing the good bacteria in our gut alongside the bad.

Theory Three: Epigenetics

Some research indicates epigenetics are responsible for the rapid increase in food allergies—heritable changes in gene expression that don’t change the underlying DNA sequence. Epigenetic changes can be the product of environmental or other external factors, like diet or smoking, or the result of natural occurrence. Research is continuing to uncover the role of epigenetics in a variety of human disorders and fatal diseases.

Theory Four: Delayed allergen exposure

In the past few years, a growing body of research is suggesting that we may not be introducing children early enough to common allergens. In February 2015, the LEAP Study results came out, debunking the previously accepted practice of discouraging exposure to peanut among high-risk infants. This misguided approach may have contributed to the rise of peanut allergies and other food allergies.

3) What are the current methods for diagnosing a food allergy? How have they changed in the past several years? 

To diagnose a food allergy, an allergist performs one of two tests (or both): a blood test (such as an ImmunoCAP test) and/or a skin prick test. The blood test measures the level of allergen-specific IgE antibodies present in the blood. Skin prick tests are exactly as they sound: the allergists pricks the patient’s arm or back with a sterile small probe containing a tiny amount of the food allergen. A food allergy diagnosis is confirmed if a wheal (a raised white bump surrounded by a small circle of red irritated skin) develops around the contact area.

In some cases, an allergist may suggest a food elimination diet to pinpoint the offending food. They may also recommend an oral food challenge.

In an oral food challenge, an allergist administers tiny amounts of the potential allergen in gradually increasing doses over a set period of time (usually 1-3 hours). The patient is closely monitored in the event the food produces an allergic reaction, and epinephrine is always on hand in case of a reaction.

To date, oral food challenges are considered the gold standard for food allergy diagnosis. Skin prick and blood tests aid in diagnosis, but they are prone to error—false positives are not uncommon. For this reason, many allergists avoid blanket food allergy screening, and carefully choose which foods to test. Skin prick tests and blood tests have been standard practice for aiding in allergy diagnosis for the past two decades.

4) What are some common allergic reaction symptoms?

It’s first important to note that no two allergic reactions are the same, and just because you have a mild reaction to a small bit of sesame one day, doesn’t mean symptoms will present in the same way the next time you ingest that same small amount. Below are the most common symptoms to an allergic reaction.  

Mild symptoms include: itchy or runny nose, sneezing, itchy mouth, a few hives or mild itch, and mild nausea or discomfort.

Severe symptoms include: shortness of breath, wheezing, repetitive cough, pale or bluish skin, faintness, weak pulse, dizziness, tight or hoarse throat, trouble breathing or swallowing, significant swelling of the tongue or lips, hives or widespread redness, repetitive vomiting or severe diarrhea, anxiety or confusion, or some combination thereof.

It’s important that food-allergic individuals also be aware of biphasic anaphylaxis. A biphasic allergic reaction is a second episode of anaphylaxes that typically occurs within the first several hours after the initial anaphylactic event. The symptoms of biphasic anaphylaxis can be more severe than the initial reaction. Due to the risk of biphasic anaphylaxis, a doctor may require that you remain in the hospital for several hours after an anaphylactic event for monitoring.

5) What are the most common misconceptions about food allergies? 

There are several misconceptions about food allergies. Below are a few that we hear most frequently:

Food allergies aren’t real—False. Food allergies are real. They are a response to the body’s immune system upon exposure to an allergen. The immune system misinterprets the food as a harmful invader and releases histamine and other chemicals to protect the body from perceived harm.

Food allergies aren’t life threatening—False. If an allergic reaction becomes severe, it can lead to anaphylaxis—a potentially fatal allergic reaction that involves the rapid onset of swelling which can obstruct air passageways. Symptoms of an allergic reaction may be isolated to one major system in the body (e.g., wheezing or difficulty breathing), or can involve multiple systems (e.g., lungs, heart, throat, mouth, skin, or gut), and typically present within minutes after a person ingests the offending food.

Each allergic reaction becomes increasingly worse—Not necessarily. Allergic reactions can be unpredictable. The severity of a reaction is based on a number of factors, including: the amount of the allergenic food ingested, the person’s degree of sensitivity to that food, if exercise is involved, if they are sick, if alcohol is present in their body, and if certain medications are being used (for example, NSAIDS may increase the severity of a reaction). A person with food allergies might not always experience the same symptoms each time.

A food can be made less allergenic by cooking it—Partially true. Because a food allergy is an immune system response to a protein in a food, the protein remains in the food during heating, so it cannot be cooked out. The exception to this rule is sometimes seen in highly processed foods, and with milk and egg allergies—some people are able to consume these foods after heating, such as baked goods. Ask your allergist before trying this at home.

Adults don’t develop food allergies—False. Though most food allergies start in childhood, they can develop at any age.

Peanuts are the only food that cause severe reactions—False. While peanuts are the leading trigger of food-related anaphylaxis, any food can elicit a severe reaction—other common foods include seafood, milk, wheat, eggs, and sesame seeds.

One small bite is ok—If someone has a severe food allergy, and is highly sensitive to small amounts, even a tiny bite can trigger anaphylaxis. It is well documented that allergic individuals can experience severe reactions to trace amounts of an allergen in their food.

6) What are the three most important things a food-allergic individual can communicate to their friends, family, and co-workers?

First, alert your “tribe” (friends, family, work colleagues, caregivers) of your food allergies and their accompanying health risk. Also note the various ways you can be exposed (e.g., ingestion, touch, and inhalation).

Second, let them know what symptoms to watch for in case of a reaction.

Finally, tell them where you keep your emergency medications and teach them how to use an epinephrine auto-injector. Share your doctor-provided food allergy action plan, if you have one. Often parents with food-allergic children have one to serve as a guide for caregivers. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a customizable Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Plan.

7) What role do you see technology playing in the lives of individuals with food allergies and how they manage them now, and in future? 

Food allergies have increased at an alarming rate over the past two decades. The silver lining is that we’re putting more research dollars and efforts into allergy education, management, and prevention. Numerous start-ups are spearheading this effort with cutting-edge technologies and innovation. This Spokin article published in January highlights several. Until we find a cure, technology is going to become a necessary part of how we manage food allergies.

8) What will be important for future food allergy diagnoses and treatment?

With food allergy diagnoses at an all-time high, it will become increasingly important to have improved diagnostic tools available to better understand who is at risk for severe reactions. New therapies to help people better manage their allergies are being developed every day. One example is oral immunotherapy, or OIT. OIT is a method of food desensitization that involves re-introducing the immune system to the allergenic food via oral ingestion in gradually increasing amounts over time, with the goal of eventual tolerance. Another example is the Viaskin® patch, otherwise known as the peanut patch. This approach uses epicutaneous immunotherapy. After applying the patch to your skin, the allergen is concentrated in the top layers of the skin, where it activates the immune system by targeting antigen-presenting cells without passage of the antigen into the bloodstream. The peanut patch recently entered Phase III clinical trials. Products are also currently being developed for milk and egg.

Is desensitization the future of food allergies? Or is a cure on the horizon? Only time will tell. Until then, innovation, research, heightened awareness, and education are paving the way for a brighter food allergy future.

If you have additional questions you’d like our experts to answer, please send them to Meg at mnohe@allergyamulet.com. We’d love to hear from you!

- The Allergy Amulet Team

 

These questions, and their corresponding responses, were written by the Allergy Amulet team and reviewed by Allergy Amulet advisors, Dr. Jordan Scott and Dr. John Lee.

Dr. Scott is an allergist/immunologist and operates several private allergy clinics throughout the Boston area. He is on the board of overseers at Boston Children’s Hospital, and the past president of the Massachusetts Allergy and Asthma Society. Dr. Scott is an allergy/immunology instructor at the University of Massachusetts.

Dr. Lee is the clinical director of the food allergy program at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Lee is widely recognized for his work in food allergy, and his commitment to patient health.

 

 

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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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