Studies have shown that nearly 8% of children and 10% of adults live with a food allergy, and these numbers continue to rise; the rate of peanut allergy alone has almost tripled since the 1990’s. The development of oral immunotherapy protocols now allows us to offer more than just food allergen avoidance measures to our patients with food allergies.
Oral immunotherapy (OIT) is the process of teaching your immune system to no longer react to a food allergen. The medical term for this is desensitization. In order to desensitize the immune system a patient ingests a series of progressively increasing doses of allergenic food(s). This process will reduce the risk of severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) from accidental exposure, and can increase a patient’s tolerance to the point of being able to ingest previously allergenic foods as a normal part of the diet.
Desensitization is not a new idea; in fact, it is the same process that occurs within the body when someone receives allergy shots to inhaled allergens such as pollen. The only difference is that during OIT the allergen is taken by mouth, and not injected, as is done with allergy shots.
The OIT process can allow a severely food allergic patient to progress from strict avoidance of allergenic foods to daily consumption in about 20 weeks. Desensitization occurs during those 20 weeks as the patient progresses through the “build-up” or escalation phase, meaning the allergen dose is escalated at each visit. Once the build-up is completed a patient will enter the maintenance phase, where they will consume the food daily in order to maintain desensitization.