I never thought I’d be dealing with a food allergy, but my daughter developed a life-threatening allergy to eggs before she was a year old. Allergies aren’t something we often think about until they affect us, our children or a loved one. However, we can all do our part to help those dealing with allergies simply by learning more about them and understanding them. I’d love to share with you the basics of allergies so you can help those around you facing these challenges.
Classic allergy symptoms are due to a case of mistaken identity. The body identifies some benign substance — typically from the outside world or food — as a dangerous foreign invader. The body produces antibodies specific to these benign substances so they can be targeted and destroyed next time they are detected. That’s why each exposure to an allergen can often escalate in severity from the previous exposure as the body accumulates more and more antibodies.
There are two main types of antibodies that produce an allergic response — IgE and IgG antibodies. Immunoglobulin E and G are the official terms — IgE and IgG for short. IgE antibodies produce classic allergic symptoms that tend to occur shortly after exposure to an allergen. IgE allergy symptoms are related to the release of histamine from mast cells. Symptoms can be mild such as nasal drip, runny nose, sneezing, itching and hives all the way up to more serious reactions such as swelling, nausea, vomiting, airway constriction, lethargy and anaphylaxis.
IgG antibodies cause a different type of reaction, which is not a classical “allergy.” A lot of the confusion surrounding allergies comes from blending terminology concerning IgG and IgE food reactions. IgG reactions are not immediate, they do not cause a histamine release and the symptoms can persist for a month or more after exposure to the trigger. IgG sensitivities can cause a wide range of symptoms, such as digestive problems, autoimmune disorders, fatigue and headache. Ideally, IgG food reactions should be termed “food sensitivities,” while IgE reactions should be termed “food allergies” to help avoid any confusion.
IgG reactions are not life threatening and do not cause anaphylaxis, but can cause chronic health challenges. A common example of an IgG food sensitivity is gluten intolerance.
Environmental allergies such as those to pollen, animal dander and dust mites are common IgE-style allergies, but don’t frequently result in life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. These kinds of allergies can be dampened by reducing the body’s histamine levels and by gradual desensitization to the allergen through very low-level exposure. This low-level exposure is the premise of getting “allergy shots” and sublingual allergy therapy for environmental allergens.
Consuming local honey is another way to achieve low-level exposure that can help desensitize a person to local plant allergens. Eating a diet low in histamine also can help reduce a person’s overall load of histamine, thereby reducing reactions. Some foods and supplements also can reduce histamine levels or inhibit histamine release. These include bee pollen, quercetin (which is also found in many fruits and vegetables such as apples, onions and broccoli) and vitamin C-rich foods and supplements.
Serious IgE food allergies are becoming more common, with about 8% of children in the United States having some kind of food allergy. The most common food allergies are dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy, but as many as 160 different foods can cause allergies.
Food allergies in children and adults are increasing at alarming rates, and there are many theories as to why.
Some believe that good and bad gut bacteria populations (termed the microbiome) may be contributing. Because children who grow up on farms rarely have allergies, others have proposed the “hygiene theory,” which explains that a lack of exposure to normal germs may be causing dysfunction in the immune system.
The cause of increasing food allergy prevalence is likely a combination of many different factors and genetic susceptibility, and researchers continue to search for answers.
Unfortunately, there are limited treatment options for IgE food allergies. IgE food allergies can range from mild to life threatening, but they can be unpredictable from one reaction to the next.
Complete avoidance of a food allergen is the only option for the safety of a person with an allergy, as even trace amounts can be enough to trigger a reaction.
Children sometimes outgrow food allergies, and an in-office food challenge can be completed under the careful supervision of an allergist to confirm this.
As the mother of a child with a life-threatening egg allergy, I understand how challenging and stressful it can be to avoid an allergen. You should never offer a young child something to eat without first confirming with caregivers that a food is safe for them.
Oral immunotherapy (OIT) is a newer treatment option for food allergies that is available at select allergists’ offices. OIT can slowly desensitize someone to a specific food allergen through very controlled, slowly increasing oral exposure. My daughter started the OIT process for eggs a little over a year ago, when she could not even tolerate trace amounts of egg white.
Though she is far from finished with the process, she can now safely consume exactly a teaspoon of egg white without any life-threatening reactions. It is encouraging knowing that an accidental egg exposure is less dangerous for her than it once would have been. I encourage anyone dealing with IgE food allergies to explore the option of OIT for the peace of mind it can bring.
So, remember, we all can play a part in helping those with allergies by increasing our awareness, carefully paying attention to details, and most of all, offering a supportive and listening ear.
To schedule a consultation with Angela, visit the MediSlim clinic at 3806 S. Medford Drive in Lufkin or call (936) 632-1996 for more information.