Healthy Living

Can desensitization get rid of peanut allergies?

Friday, February 20, 2009

People with peanut allergies live in constant fear. For some, even a tiny bit can be life threatening. But can you train your immune system to overcome the allergy? Desensitization is a concept scientists have been working on for decades, but a new study suggests it can work.

Peanut allergies are serious business.

"Peanut allergies can be very violent. They can be very extreme," said Dr. Katrina Miller.

Numerous reports of people dying of anaphylactic shock after unknowingly eating peanuts have fueled fears.

Many local school districts even ban peanut products on campus.

"You'd be surprised how many kinds of foods have peanut or some kind of peanut in them," said Dr. Miller.

So news of a British study in which a small group of children were successfully trained to tolerate peanuts is hopeful. Family medicine expert Dr. Miller says it's not a new idea.

"Sometimes we can do something called desensitization. This is where we give small amounts of the thing that causes the allergy and that way the person can get more use to it," said Dr. Miller.

In the study, kids aged 7 to 17 were given 5 milligram doses of peanut flour. Over six months the dose was gradually increased. After, six months some children were able to eat up to 12 peanuts a day. But this study was done in a controlled environment. Experts say do not try this at home.

"Bottom line with a severe peanut allergy is avoid peanuts at all costs. It still is the thing to do. The desensitization process is a long one. It is something that is a big undertaking and you want to do it for the right reasons, for the right patient and not everybody needs it," said Dr. Miller.

Allergy shots are one form of desensitization. But the inoculations only contain parts of the actual allergen. It's a long and expensive process.

Oral desensitization is a positive step, but experts say it's still a long way off.

"We don't know enough on desensitization about peanuts yet. This new study is encouraging, but it doesn't give us enough information to know whether we can do this process quite yet in actual patients," said Dr. Miller.

Participants in the study maintain their peanut tolerance by eating five peanuts a day. Again, study authors say it's important families do not try to replicate this study at home. The next step is to extend this clinical trial to adults. The report is in the Journal Allergy.


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