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Researchers Say Children can be Taught to Fight Food Allergy in Time

Update Date: Dec 28, 2012 05:29 AM EST

Holidays and the festive season could be stressful for parents as there are so many varieties of food and sweets around, and it is difficult to monitor children's diet and keep them away from allergens.    

However it may come as a relief for parents to know that in a new study conducted at National Jewish Health in Denver, doctors are working toward an approach to treating food allergies. In their study, children are exposed to the foods that usually make them sick, Medical Xpress reports.

"The basic premise to our approach, is that we're trying to gradually increase the amount of food patients can tolerate, until they no longer have to fear an allergic reaction," said David Fleischer, M.D., a food allergy expert at National Jewish Health.  "Right now, there is no treatment for food allergies.  The only treatment is to avoid foods, but we are working to change that," he said.

Patients during the research are first given small portions of certain foods. This is a test developed at National Jewish Health, known as a "food challenge." 

"We start very slowly," said Dr. Fleischer, "only giving them a gram or two at a time.  In doing that, it not only allows us to pinpoint the foods they're allergic to, but it lets us know exactly how much they can tolerate before showing signs of a reaction," he said.

With that knowledge, the children are sent home with drops or powders containing proteins from the food they are allergic to. And then slowly with every passing day, children consume dose by dose of the proteins in an effort to allow their body to build immunity against the food, so that there is no more reaction to it.   

"Eventually, some patients develop a tolerance for the very foods they've been avoiding for years," said Dr. Fleischer.

The process is known as immunotherapy and the results are promising, if not for all, but it certainly works for some patients.

"We know it's a limited number of patients," said Dr. Fleischer, "but we've shown some success with this approach."

One of the case studies quoted by the report is that of 13-year-old Alex Pritchard who was diagnosed with food allergy at age one.

"They tested him for all kinds of things, and he tested positive for all of them," said Alex's mother, Tammy.  "He was allergic to beef, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts and milk," she said, "but most disheartening, is that he was allergic to eggs."

"Eggs are in everything," said Pritchard.  "From flu shots to meatballs, because you use egg as a binder when you cook and when you bake," she said.

However, when he went to National Jewish Health for treatment, eggs were one of the first items on the menu.

"Here's a boy who was egg allergic, and he's now able to eat as much eggs as he wants," said Dr. Fleischer.  "It took a while to get him to that point, but his life has completely changed, to the point where he doesn't have to worry about that allergen anymore," he said.

"It's unbelievable," said Pritchard. 

However, researchers warn that under no circumstance should this be tried at home by any patient of food allergy.

"We are dealing with food allergens that can be very dangerous, so this should only be done by experts at a medical facility," Dr. Fleischer said.

"We were glad Alex was tested in a controlled environment," said Pritchard.  "We felt confident and very safe." 

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