Children's food allergies: Could food be the cure?

April 8, 2016 Providence Health Team

Food allergies affect an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the U.S. This figure translates into approximately 4,000,000 kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight foods or food groups account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.

A food allergy is an adverse reaction by the immune system that occurs soon after exposure to a certain food. Even a tiny amount of an allergy-causing food can trigger signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives or swollen airways. In some people, a food allergy can cause anaphylaxis, a severe, rapid reaction that can cause death.

New study tests 6 common food allergens

A new study by researchers at Kings College London suggests a counter-intuitive cure for food allergies: fighting them with food. That thinking goes against longstanding medical advice given to people with allergies: Avoid the food causing the reaction.

Gideon Lack, a professor of pediatric allergies at Kings College, seems to believe that the current school of thought may actually increase allergy problems. So instead of focusing on managing allergies, Lack set his sights on curing them. In an earlier study, he worked with other experts to investigate the results of feeding peanuts to children at a higher risk for food allergies.

Researchers in the Learning About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) trial discovered that feeding 6 grams of peanut protein to children 4 months of age and older led to significant reductions in the rates of peanut allergies. The study was based on the idea that exposure to allergens enables a child's immune system to learn to recognize and tolerate them rather than react to them.

In their most recent study, Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT), Lack and his team expanded their initial approach to include multiple foods. More than 1,300 infants from the general population were exposed to:

  • Peanuts
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Fish
  • Wheat
  • Sesame

Half of the babies, all 3 months old, were given up to 4 grams of each of the foods on a weekly basis. Overall, the results showed a 20 percent reduction in rates of food allergies among the babies exposed to the allergens. However, Lack later found out that 34 percent of the infants had been given less than the required amount of these foods. The infants who consumed all of the required portions during the trial showed a 100 percent reduction in allergic reaction to peanuts and a 75 percent reduction in allergic reaction to eggs.

While the researchers said they were encouraged with their data, Lack and his team do not recommend using their approach outside of a supervised trial. The team continues to support the World Health Organization's recommendations for breast feeding infants until more testing is done.

How children describe a food allergy

Outside of the food allergy symptoms discussed earlier, it might be helpful for parents to understand how children actually experience allergic reactions to food. Here’s a list of descriptions compiled by the CDC:

  • It feels like something is poking my tongue.
  • My tongue (or mouth) is tingling (or burning).
  • My tongue (or mouth) itches.
  • My tongue feels like there is hair on it.
  • My mouth feels funny.
  • There's a frog in my throat; there's something stuck in my throat.
  • My tongue feels full (or heavy).
  • My lips feel tight
  • It feels like there are bugs in there (to described itchy ears).
  • It (my throat) feels thick.
  • It feels like a bump is on the back of my tongue (throat).

If you have questions or concerns about your child's reaction to foods, talk to your pediatrician. Need a pediatrician? Find one in your area.

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