Low-Dose Desensitization to Allergens

Did It Make Me a SuperMan?

I was born with allergic reactions to food. It was more than just one food that caused my reaction; there were several foods that would do me in. My reaction to the proteins that confused my immune system raised bright red bumps on my behind and on my legs. Occasional the hives would show on my arms, but only if the reaction was very strong. My mother, herself with many allergic contraindications to eating, needed to write very detailed lists for babysitters, for the parents of friends if I was eating over at their house, for grandparents, for schools, for just about anybody that would be in a position to offer food to me.

I was allergic to wheat gluten so I couldn’t eat anything made from flour unless it was a pure rye flour (most “rye” bread is blended with wheat flour). I could eat no eggs, no citrus except for tangerines, no chocolate and no dairy. I couldn’t drink milk, couldn’t eat cheese, couldn’t eat cake and couldn’t eat ice cream. I occasionally sneaked food that I wanted but wasn’t supposed to eat due to my allergies. I knew that I couldn’t hide my sin for long because my body would give me away in blotches. As a little kid, my “Scarlet A” represented not adultery but allergy. This all led to some funny stories at my expense, such as:

My sister Nancy was a perfectionist when it came to making toast and buttering it. The toast couldn’t be too dark, nor could it be too light. There could be no chunks of un-melted butter so it all needed to be perfectly spread on the bread. She spent more time prepping her buttered toast than actually eating it. One morning while getting ready for school she made her toast. I sat at the table like a cat waiting for her to finish and then turn away to pour herself a glass of milk. As soon as she turned and as soon as I knew that no one else was waiting, I snatched the toast from the counter and scurried into the hallway. I could overhear her panicked voice as she searched for her bread, enlisting both my mother and my other sister’s help.

On a hunch my mother came out into the hallway and found me, faced into a corner and munching away at the remainder of the toast. It was a heavenly meal, forbidden toast. Of course, Mom was angry at first but then burst out laughing at how cute it was for a five-year-old to be hurriedly munching a piece of toast knowing that it was something he wasn’t supposed to do. Toast, forbidden. How absurd.

In another incident, Mom had baked some bread. It was hot, and the flavor steamed out of it after Dad had cut a slice and left the remainder whole. I took a pinch of the warmy goodness from the center when there was no one else in the kitchen. Then another. I kept on taking small pieces until I realized that there was no way that I was not going to get caught at this one. So, I decided that if I was going to get caught anyway, I might as well make the it worth the punishment. I hollowed out the bread crust and turned the cut end to face the wall. I walked non-nonchalantly into the family room and started to watch television, waiting to hear the reaction when someone took a knife to a empty bread crust. I had a hard time suppressing my giggles as I waited.

Then, after a half hour, I heard my brother yell out, “What happened to the bread!” He was startled, I believe, when the bread collapsed under the knife. There were more incidents, but none so entertaining.

When I was ten, my parents took me to an allergy specialist to test what the extent of my allergies was. The doctor did some scratch tests, confirming all the things that I shouldn’t eat. There were no surprises, and the scratch tests had hurt so I really hadn’t seen the purpose of performing them. What I hadn’t known was that she had prescribed them because she was about to do some science. She wanted a baseline of my reactions, because she proposed a series of shots for me over a period of six weeks to try to counter my overactive immune system.

Rashes, hives and other allergic reactions are due to an imperfect immune system. Immunoglobin E (IgE) is what our glands produce to fend off unwelcome invaders, but a slight defect in the genes that determine the types of invaders to which it will respond will generate IgEs inappropriately to protect us, even though it is protecting us from stuff that doesn’t harm us otherwise.

I have not been able to find out what the specific drug she had prescribed turned out to be, and when I asked my parents, neither of them could remember the name of it. I believe it to have been a low-dose desensitization, which was being developed in England and tested in the United States at the time that I would have been that age:

The second kind of immunotherapy for food allergies is low dose immunotherapy. The first treatment of this type was enzyme potentiated desensitization (EPD) which was developed in England over 40 years ago and has been used around the world. It was used in the United States for about 10 years as part of a study conducted under an Investigational Review Board. An EPD shot contains a very minute amount of many allergens plus an enzyme which naturally occurs in the human body, beta-glucuronidase.

When the six-week course of one shot per week was complete, we returned to the specialist and she re-ran the scratch test for reactions. We waited for an hour, and none of the allergens tested positive for a reaction. The negative results were positive.

While I waited in the waiting room for my parents to finish the consultation, I wondered whether it meant I would be able to start eating everything that I wanted. My mother’s joy at the results showed on her face as she came to give me a big hug. “You are cured, Mike!” she told me, and squeezed me. Mom cried pretty easily, and I could feel her tears on my cheek. We sat and she explained to me that we would be introducing the foods into my diet one week at a time just to make sure, but that the doctor was sure that my nightmare was over.

I asked for a chocolate candy bar. A milk chocolate candy bar. Up until that point the only kind of “chocolate” candy I could eat was carob. If you’ve never had chocolate, carob is okay. If you have had chocolate, carob is horrible. While other kids drank chocolate milk, I drank powdered carob mixed in goat’s milk. My choice of drink with supper was water, because I could never get into the pure unaldulterated thrill of drinking powdered carob mixed in goat’s milk. Try it sometime and then call me when you get back from your excursion into Nirvana. Or not.

I ate chocolate, and then had a chocolate malt at a restaurant near to the clinic in Thief River Falls. It turned out to be the best day in my life, far better than the day my brother had gotten into trouble for threatening to “pound me.”

I have not been allergic to anything since then. No hay fever, no cedar fever, no food allergies. My body has learned to properly identify invaders while leaving alone what are allergens to other people. I was thinking of this when I read that allergies have been a problem for Stephanie these last few months, along with everything else that’s been going on. While I felt relief that allergies have not been a problem for me, I could certainly sympathize even though my symptoms were far different than what hers have been. When one has allergic reactions to substances that really have no business causing problems, it’s frustrating to realize that life isn’t fair.

Something else happened today that got me to thinking about allergies. I was helping my roommate/landlord to bag leaves after his son had spent the morning and early afternoon raking. While compacting a bag so that we could stuff more from the pile into the bag, a bee stung me. I felt a very sharp pain on my finger and looked down to see the insect protecting something from me (and I am not sure what it was, because bees rarely attack me). It hurt. It burned. I brushed the bee away and the pain increased.

It’s been at least twenty years since I was last stung, and I worried that I might have a reaction. I watched for my finger to swell for several minutes, and it didn’t. I found the tiny stinger and plucked it from my skin and then went back to work. I had no reaction other than the pain. I know people who wear Medical Alert tags with lifesaving instructions on what to do immediately after they have been stung, because their reactions are so severe that they will suffocate from a swelled neck and go into shock unless treated.

No, I am fortunate to have been treated by a specialist in Thief River Falls who had subscribed to be a an administering physician in a study to test the effectiveness of an allergy treatment. And I don’t know what the conclusions for the study were, but I wonder if my success had been one of the few that the study found and that is why the treatment was not made available to the general population. The treatment may not have been my cure, and perhaps the change in my immune systems response was a coincidence from which I draw a false correlation.

I feel lucky.

6 Responses to “Low-Dose Desensitization to Allergens”

  1. November 9th, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Alden says:

    I’ve been told that eating Oregon-produced honey will have the same effect on many of our local allergies (grass, trees, etc.). It makes sense. I’m glad you found that treatment.

  2. November 9th, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I’m just curious about what happened to the experiment, and I wonder why if it was so successful for treating me what they found to cause them to discontinue. It was only run for 10 years in the United States, but has been used in other countries.

    Someday, I’ll have to look into it….

  3. November 10th, 2009 at 7:19 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    My local country doctor must have heard about that as well. When I was a kid, he tried a series of shots that were supposed to cure me of my allergy to poison ivy. We lived on a resort, and even if I stayed away from the stuff, the dog didn’t. The shots didn’t work for me. I never heard that it was part of a study, just something new that everybody thought was worth a try. What really worked was moving away from the resort and limiting my exposure, especially after the dog died.
    Years later, my “new” family moved to Georgia, arriving mid-winter. On nice weekends we cleared vines and brush from the back yard. Our new neighbors had filled us in on Kudzu, and we didn’t want that strangling our trees. We could tell greenbriars by the thorns, but never knew what all the others were, as they hadn’t leafed out yet. One particularly pesky vine had tendrils all along the stem to anchor it to tree bark, where it climbed way out of sight. We cut and pulled what we could, knowing the severed tops would die.

    The next day, my hands had swollen so much that my fingers touched while splayed fully apart. The local doctor scolded me for an idiot for pulling what turned out to be poison ivy bare-handed. Turns out that was the pesky clingy vine. Who knew? In Minnesota it’s a little shrub about 15″ tall, and I never got close enough to see what the stems looked like. Anyhow, I had proof positive that the shots hadn’t worked.

  4. November 10th, 2009 at 11:13 am

    K says:

    Oh! I didn’t know they had stopped. I thought this was SOP for people with allergies. Weird.

  5. November 10th, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I’ll get the link to the specific study. it may be a different treatment now, but the one that I found said it had been discontinued.

  6. November 15th, 2009 at 1:08 am

    Nefernika says:

    This sounds like it was something different from the current sort of allergy shots–I’ve been getting shots for trees and grass for three years now, and I think what my allergist told me when I started was that most people who are going to respond at all do so within a year, and those with severe allergies might continue for as long as five years. So a six-week course would be AMAZING by that standard!

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