Allergen immunotherapy for food allergies has been studied intensively over the last decade and options are now emerging for treatment. The idea is that your body can be “trained” not to react to small amounts of an allergen by being given small doses of that allergen, increasing the dose over time.
Although allergen immunotherapy offers hope for children affected by serious allergies, it is not yet widely available on the NHS and the thought of going through treatment can be seen as a bit of a leap into the unknown.
Martha McMahon, 16, shares her experience of private immunotherapy treatment for peanut allergy and the positive impact it has had on her life.
By Martha McMahon
When I travelled the 360 miles from Glasgow to Cambridge for the first time to start private immunotherapy treatment in early 2018, I had no idea about the difference it would make to my life. I was so restricted as to what I could eat, Halloween 2017 being a particularly terrifying experience to 11-year-old me, as it seemed like everything I picked up had ‘May contain nuts’ on the packet.
I was diagnosed with a serious peanut allergy when I was 18 months old, and I‘ve been scared of food for as long as I can remember. Something as ordinary as a meal felt like I was jumping out of a plane with no parachute each time. I was scared of having anaphylaxis. I was scared of losing my adrenaline auto-injectors. I was scared of asking people what was in my food in case they didn’t understand or got it wrong. I was scared of social events, such as birthday parties, because I could never eat the cake, and I was embarrassed to ask. I was scared of restaurants, of going on holiday, of trying new foods in case it might harm me, and my biggest fear was ice cream from a scoop. Especially chocolate ones.
The efforts made to keep me safe were necessary, but they led to me feeling really isolated. I remember one incident in particular, when I was about eight. I was at an after-school group for childcare, and all the other children got to go into a coffee shop and have a hot chocolate as a treat. I sat outside with an orange juice on a bench with an adult that worked there.
In a summer camp with the same group, I ate my carefully packed lunch on my own, double checking the label of my carefully chosen yogurt before I ate it. Experiences like this happened more often and were even more damaging to my confidence than any actual allergic reactions I can remember having.
Every second week, my dad and I made the trek across the UK to the allergy clinic. I’d miss every second Monday of school to increase my dose of peanut powder mixed into yogurt. We’d go the night before and the appointment would be in the morning. I’d do my homework after taking my dose, and my dad would anxiously watch over me for two hours to make sure I was OK before we left to go home. Every day before school, I would take the dose, and I can only ever remember two times I had any side effects, both times mild. At the start in January, I reacted to a quarter of a teaspoon of peanut butter, and the starting dose was the equivalent of one hundredth of a peanut. By April, I could tolerate two peanuts with no reaction whatsoever.
When I started secondary school in August, I no longer worried about traces of nuts in food from the cafeteria, and I was introduced to my first ever doughnut. I could eat tree nuts, I could go out with my friends, and sit in coffee shops with them, and have a hot chocolate. The social freedoms that immunotherapy treatment gave me had an incredible impact on my life, and I can’t imagine where I would be without it. My anxiety drastically reduced, and so did my mum’s, who then had the peace of mind to let me go to a school disco without too much worry. Small amounts of peanuts that come from small mistakes were no longer lethal, and I wasn’t so scared of food anymore.
Almost five years on, I go to the clinic yearly now for review, and take my maintenance dose of the equivalent of two peanuts weekly. I’m about to finish high school, and I haven’t had an allergic reaction since I started. I still carry my adrenaline auto-injectors and avoid peanuts, but I go to parties without being anxious when I eat something. Thinking about moving away for university no longer fills my mum with dread, and I go and have ice cream from a scoop on a hot day with my friends, worry free. And chocolate is my absolute favourite flavour.
For more information about Allergen Immunotherapy, please see our Factsheet.