Food Allergy Treatment: Oral Immunotherapy (OIT)
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Up until last year I had never heard of OIT. I may have seen the acronym mentioned in a Facebook post somewhere, but didn’t pay much attention to it since I didn’t know what it was. Little did I know how much those three letters had the potential to change our lives.
In February of 2018, my son was 11. He had a few events in a row that being on his own for long periods of time and sometimes involved meals prepared by others. I started to feel more stress about food allergies in a different and more intense way than I had before. I was praying to know if there was something more I could do for Riley. I felt I was reaching a point where I was beginning to have less ability to work with others to make a safe environment for him, or to help him feel included. I posted a comment on a food allergy Facebook group about how I was feeling at the time, and a member of the group reached out to me privately, asking if I had heard of or considered OIT.
The fact that the message was sent to me privately made me skeptical. I have been given advice by MANY people throughout the years about different treatments that supposedly cured food allergies. I never trusted any of them because there was never solid evidence that these treatments worked, and there was no way I was going to experiment with with my son’s life-threatening food allergy. For some reason, the way this message was written sounded different. It was someone who understood food allergies, had a daughter who had successfully completed the treatment, and did not seem to be advocating an individual or particular practice. I decided to do a little research.
What is OIT?
OIT is an abbreviation for Oral Immunotherapy. OIT refers to feeding an allergic individual an increasing amount of an allergen with the goal of increasing the threshold that triggers a reaction. Basically, you or your child is being gradually desensitized to the food. If you Google Oral Immunotherapy, several results will come up from trusted sources and doctors. When I started doing the research I was surprised and encouraged to see this was a real treatment backed by research and clinical trials.
Who Does OIT for Food Allergies?
The treatment is done by board-certified allergists – doctors who know what they are doing. This is not done by your local chiropractor or essential oils advocate. I’m sure there is a place for treatments from those individuals, but they are not the experts you need to manage severe allergic reactions or anaphylaxis. And above all, it is not something you can safely attempt to do on your own at home. This treatment is done under close supervision and guidance with strict rules about timing, physical activity and appropriate medications needed to minimize the risk of a serious reaction. I had never heard of any doctor even mentioning this to me as an option, so I started looking for doctors who did OIT near me.
Finding an OIT Doctor
In the Facebook message Michael sent me, he mentioned that there were only 4 doctors in the state who did OIT. When I looked it up, I only found one and his office was in a town about 3 hours from where we live. Apparently, there are not a lot of options out there yet. I found out there was another doctor who had fairly recently started treatment doing the same thing and was only 40 minutes away. I scheduled an appointment to learn more about our options. Count yourself lucky if you live reasonably close to one of these allergists. The first day we came in, there was a mom who drove 4 hours one way every week to treat her son. We were there the day they graduated from the treatment program and she told me it had been worth the sacrifice.
Food Allergy Treatment vs. Cure
OIT is a food allergy treatment, but it is not a cure for food allergies. The goal is to raise the tolerance level for the allergen. At the end of the treatment, we expect Riley will still have to carry his epinephrine. Ultimately, he will likely still be allergic to the same foods, but his tolerance level will be high enough that he may be able to freely eat some of these foods without a reaction. My mind can’t even imagine a world where he could safely eat a brownie someone brought to a family gathering. My mind also can’t wrap around the idea of having to give my son his daily dose of allergens every morning on a full tummy within a 22-26 hour window. But that is for another post.
It is possible that constant exposure to the allergens will bring his IgE numbers down low enough that he could pass a food challenge and will be considered “cured” of a food allergy. The doctor said he has seen it in about 30% of his patients. It is also possible that we have to continue to give him a maintenance dose of the allergens for the rest of his life to maintain his tolerance of those foods. We decided it was worth trying for eggs and milk, even if it was only about safety and didn’t result in a cure, it was still worth it to us. We would tackle nuts next if all went well.
Sharing Our OIT Experience
Just like Michael shared his experience with me, I hope that writing about ours will help someone else who is looking for options. I will post more of our experiences as we go. Maybe it will help you or someone you know decide if this is an option worth exploring. For us it definitely was, and I’m grateful for someone who reached out to tell me about it.