Curing life threatening food allergies

Food allergies are becoming increasingly common with four out of every 100 children in the U.S being diagnosed but doctors at Arkansas Children's Hospital are discovering a way that they can actually help children outgrow their allergy.

12-year-old Caroline Hambuchen and her family have to be extremely careful about what she eats and is exposed to. As a baby, Caroline was diagnosed with a laundry list of allergies that would make any mother worry.

"When we found out, she tested positive to wheat, all dairy, soy, shellfish, sesame, egg, peanut and tree nut. So, she had a long list," said her mother, Marla Hambuchen.

Caroline quickly outgrew the wheat and soy allergy, but the others were still a significant threat. As the youngest child of four, her entire family had to make serious, life style adjustments just to keep her safe.

"Our commitment was your home is safe and it always will be. I don't know how many times I stopped somebody who was coming to paint my wall, at the door and said what food do you have on you? I just became the bravest woman. I would say anything to anyone but it was just to keep her safe."

Part of that journey involves a lot of care and advice from Dr. Stacie Jones, Chief of the Allergy and Immunology Department at Arkansas Children's Hospital. Dr. Jones is one of the leading food allergy researchers in the nation and since 2003 she's been conducting clinical studies that in many cases have reversed food allergies in kids and adults.

"We say they're cured. Once they've completed the study, we call it outgrowing their allergy. The medical word is tolerance," said Dr. Jones.

Building up that tolerance to the very thing that causes an allergic reaction is risky, but Caroline bravely began an egg study being done by Dr. Jones when she was seven. At specifically timed appointments, Caroline would come to the hospital and under medical supervision, she would be given applesauce containing small amounts of egg white powder. Her reaction to the egg would be gauged and over time, she would gradually be given more until she could eventually tolerate eggs. For Caroline, that took four and a half years of appointments, but now she is no longer allergic to eggs.

"It's changed my life a lot. I'm very happy I did it and I'm just so happy to say I'm not allergic to eggs anymore," said Caroline.

"For her to have one less thing to have to ask about when she's eating out or to have to communicate to a friend's mom or have to look for on a label, it has really made a difference."

So far Dr. Jones and her team have also had similar success with children allergic to peanuts and milk.

"When we finally see a child who has outgrown this allergy, they are very, very excited. Their parents, I think, are even more excited. They're just incredibly grateful."

Symptoms of a food allergy include itching or swelling of the mouth and throat, a skin rash or hives, difficulty breathing, nausea or vomiting. If you think your child may have a food allergy, see a doctor immediately. If your child does have a food allergy and you're interested in the study at Arkansas Children's Hospital, you can contact the hospital at (501) 364-1060.