By: Alonso Chavarriaga
What is Oral Immunotherapy?
Dr. Kim likens oral immunotherapy to an allergy shot. You get injected with hay fever and environmental allergens like pollen and dust mites, with the small concentrated dose gradually increasing until your body becomes desensitized to it.
Injections have been proven to work well for environmental allergies, but deemed too dangerous and unpredictable with food. Oral immunotherapy is taken through the mouth, since that’s how food is ingested, and in much smaller doses.
Oral immunotherapy studies typically focus on the most common food allergens: milk, egg, and peanuts. Overall, there are about eight foods that cause 95 percent of food allergies: milk, egg, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soy, tree nut, and wheat. There is a lot of information already for milk, eggs, and peanuts, while wheat studies are just beginning and not enough information is available quite yet.
The study gave subjects small amounts of allergens and gradually increased the dosage every two weeks until they reached a goal dosage. Once the goal dosage was achieved, the subject would continue to take the allergen for a period of time. Even though results have been promising, the door is still considered “wide open,” because studies tend to use different protocols, dosing, and length of time, says Dr. Kim.
Promising, Yet Incomplete Studies
Undergoing oral immunotherapy can also be difficult to complete. Almost everyone experiences mild reactions to the food allergens, like oral itching or abdominal pain, but up to 20 percent of children do end up needing epinephrine at some point. Dr. Kim stresses that it’s not a risk-free form of treatment, and can be nerve wracking for parents.
Researchers are still unsure if dosages should continue for life, or if there is a point where therapy would not be necessary. Follow-up studies are needed to find out more information regarding length of treatment, chance of redeveloping the food allergy, and how to standardize the oral immunotherapy method. For now though, the slew of recent studies are showing positive results in the right direction, and eliminating or greatly reducing food allergies may be in the near future.
In the accompanying audio segment, Dr. Jen Kim shares the latest advancements in oral immunotherapy and the hope it's giving your children's appetite.