July 18, 2012 -- Exposing children with egg allergies to egg in a carefully controlled setting can dramatically reduce and even eliminate potentially life-threatening allergic reactions for some children, new federally funded research shows.
About 4% of children in the U.S. have food allergies, according to the CDC.
At present, the only good way to avoid reactions to allergic foods is by strictly avoiding them.
But an approach known as oral immunotherapy, which seeks to slowly desensitize the body to the allergic food, is showing promise in early trials.
In a new study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, children who were allergic to eggs were given small but increasing doses of egg white powder for 10 months, followed by several years of maintenance dosing.
More than a quarter of the children who were treated with the egg white powder lost their allergic reactions altogether after two years.
"These children went from having serious allergic reactions after a single bite of an egg-containing cookie to consuming eggs with minimal or no symptoms," says Robert Wood, MD, who directs the allergy and immunology department at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
Although results from the oral immunotherapy trials are encouraging, Wood warns that the treatment is still highly experimental.
"We are still very much in the research phase," he tells WebMD. "There are still many things to be worked out before this treatment is ready for use in the practice setting."
1 in 4 Kids Passed Egg Challenge
This study is one of several oral immunotherapy trials conducted through the National Institutes of Health-funded Consortium of Food Allergy Research.
In it, 55 children ranging in age from 5 to 11 with egg allergy received either carefully controlled doses of egg white powder (40 participants) or cornstarch powder (15 participants), which served as a placebo. Children with a history of a severe allergic reaction to egg, such as drop in blood pressure, were not included in the study.
The egg dose was gradually increased over 10 months until the children were given the egg white powder equivalent of about a third of an egg every day, according to the researchers.