Food Allergy Awareness Week is May 13-19, a national campaign to raise awareness of a growing public health issue. The number of people with food allergies, particularly children, has been rapidly increasing and cause has yet to be found. Food allergies have no cure, but new research shows promising results for several experimental treatments.
Food allergies on the rise
Recent studies have found that as many as 15 million Americans, including 6 million children, have food allergies. Peanuts trigger the most common food allergy and peanut allergies in U.S. children more than tripled from 1997 to 2008. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of more than 9,500 children a year are hospitalized with food allergy reactions.
Rogue immune systems
Children usually outgrow allergies to milk, egg, wheat and soy, albeit more slowly now than in the recent past. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish or shellfish are lifelong afflictions. A food allergy occurs when IgE antibodies that are supposed to fight off infections start attacking certain food proteins instead. The IgE antibody triggers the release of histamines and other chemicals that can cause a progressive and sometimes life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock.
Anaphylaxis symptoms include hives or redness of the skin, breathing problems, nausea, dizziness, and often a rapid decrease in blood pressure. Anaphylactic shock can occur quickly without warning and progress rapidly to become life threatening. Epinephrine is the only first-line treatment that exists for anaphylactic shock and people with food allergies should carry an Epi-pen, a prepackaged epinephrine injector, at all times.
The hygiene hypothesis
Scientists have theories about the increase in food allergies, but an explanation for the disturbing trend is yet to be confirmed. One popular theory is the hygiene hypothesis. The hygiene hypothesis contents that modern society has become so proficient at preventing infections that our immune systems are out of whack. The proliferation of anti-bacterial products and overuse of antibiotics have confused our immune systems into attacking harmless food proteins instead of deadly pathogens.
Potential food allergy cures
Food allergies have no cure, but recent research on ways to condition the immune system of food allergy patients has shown promise. Three experimental food allergy treatments are currently being tested in human clinical trials:
Oral Immunotherapy—a process which begins by ingesting a tiny amount of allergy-triggering food and progressively eating larger doses to build immunity.
Sublingual Immunotherapy—a solution containing allergy-triggering food proteins is placed under the tongue, where it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream.
Food Allergy Herbal Formula-2 (FAHF-2)—a regimen based on traditional Chinese medicine involving an herbal formula taken in pills intended to alter the global immune response, rather than a single allergen, such as peanuts.