Food oral immunotherapy? You’re probably wondering what that means exactly. Let’s break it down into two parts. “Immuno” is derived from the word immune which means to protect from and “therapy” means the treatment of a disease or disorder that entails some type of rehabilitating process. So, when we provide oral immunotherapy to our patients we are providing a therapy by mouth to reduce a person’s sensitivity to foods that cause allergic reactions.
Food oral immunotherapy helps patients tolerate food proteins (allergens) they would otherwise be allergic to by introducing small amounts of the proteins on a daily basis. It is important to note that food oral immunotherapy only works on food allergies caused by allergy antibodies. These are antibodies released from your immune system that cause your allergic reaction.
How does it work?
If you and your board-certified allergist decide food oral immunotherapy is right for you, you will start eating gradually increasing amounts of the specific food over an extended period of time. The amount of food is precisely measured in milligrams based on protocols developed from oral immunotherapy research. This dose will increase over time to reduce your body’s sensitivity to the food allergen. This is known as building tolerance. Tolerance for a food allergen only continues if the food is eaten regularly.
What is involved?
Oral immunotherapy requires a significant commitment of time and attention. Before you can begin this type of therapy your allergist will want to make sure all other allergic conditions are under control and routine immunizations are up-to-date. Depending on your allergy history, additional steps may need to be taken before starting oral immunotherapy.
The first step in oral immunotherapy is called escalation. This takes place in your allergist’s office and may last up to eight hours. It is important that the first step is monitored closely. After your first dose, the same amount will be eaten at home once a day until the next escalation dose.
Subsequent escalation visits can be as often as every one to two weeks. During these visits the patient will eat the new higher dose and then be observed for one hour to ensure there is no reaction. The goal is to reach what is called a “maintenance” dose. Once maintenance is reached, that dose is continued at home with no more planned escalation visits. At this point, the patient now has a significantly reduced risk of severe allergic reaction if they accidentally eat their food allergen and they do not have to avoid processed foods at risk of cross-contamination with their food allergen.
Whether it’s peanuts, tree nuts, milk, or some other food, oral immunotherapy may be an option to help you lessen the fear of allergic reactions from hidden food allergens and allow you to be more involved in life.
What are the risks?
As with any type of therapy, there are risks. Adverse reactions to oral immunotherapy are common but the goal is to minimize the reactions through careful monitoring and escalation visits.
In carefully developed research studies, reactions occur in a significant number of patients. Most reactions are mild such as itchy mouth or abdominal pain and resolve without treatment or with antihistamines alone. Abdominal pain, nausea, heartburn and vomiting can be bothersome for patients after doses and can sometimes lead to changes in the treatment protocol. Our experienced physicians can tailor each treatment plan to the individual patient.
Anaphylaxis can occur with oral immunotherapy and families must be prepared to administer injectable epinephrine if needed. Studies show that less than 15 percent of patients are treated with epinephrine for a reaction during home dosing.
There have been reports of eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) occurring more frequently in patients on oral immunotherapy. Eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) is an inflammatory condition of the lining of the esophagus that can cause difficulty swallowing, severe reflux, nausea and/or abdominal pain.
Approximately 25 percent of patients discontinue oral immunotherapy before reaching the “maintenance” point. The most common reasons are reactions, especially gastrointestinal side effects, difficulty adhering to the protocol and rest requirements after dosing.
If all steps are closely followed under physician supervision and careful monitoring, oral immunotherapy can be a viable option for some patients and provide lifetime freedom from food fears and stress. If oral immunotherapy sounds like an option for you or a loved one, we encourage you to speak with your board-certified allergist.
For more information and differing viewpoints of food allergy management, we recommend the following websites: