If you're allergic to eggs, a doctor has probably told you to avoid the protein. But researchers have now found that eating small amounts of egg for several months may lower the allergic reaction.
The multi-center study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that giving children with egg allergies a small amount of egg-white powder for 10 months reduced or eliminated their allergy after the study period.
About 4 percent of children in the U.S. experience food allergies, according to the research, and egg allergy is one of the most common. Many children outgrow the allergy after age 5, but for some, the sensitivity can continue into adulthood. Food allergy reactions can range from a mild rash to death.
"The children were treated and then taken off treatment, the first large study to do so. Almost a third of those treated were able to come off treatment and now eat eggs in their diet," Dr. Wesley Burks, the lead author of the study and chairman of pediatrics at UNC, told ABCNews.com.
Researchers enrolled 55 children and teens with egg allergies. Participants' families were then either given the equivalent of one-third of an egg in powder form, or a placebo, to mix into their children's food.
After 10 months, researchers gave the kids an "oral food challenge" in which they were given 5 grams of egg powder, the equivalent to one whole egg. They found that 55 percent of the children did not have an allergic reaction at that time. After 22 months, researchers gave the children two whole eggs and found that 75 percent of the children were no longer allergic.
More than one-quarter of the study group was able to work egg back into their regular diet regimen.
The approach has been taken with peanut allergies, as well as milk and egg in the past. This suggests it could be applicable to all food allergies, said Dr. Harold Nelson, a professor of medicine at National Jewish Hospital in Denver.
But Burks warned parents not to try this at home. More trials are needed before the allergy intervention is used in widespread clinical practice. There needs to be Food and Drug Administration approval and further trials with bigger patient populations, and it could take a number of years before the intervention is seen in general practice.
"It is likely that this will eventually become an accepted clinical approach but even then should be only done by physicians with experience in the procedure, who appreciate the dangers and have the time to carefully supervise the process," said Nelson. "This will never be an approach that should be conducted out in primary care."
"This study is important and relevant because it adds to growing evidence that oral immunotherapy is an effective way that we can treat food allergies," said Dr. Neeta Ogden, a New Jersey allergist in private practice. "The results are incredibly promising as a potential cure for some children with food allergies.
In the past, avoidance and elimination has been the only option, which is very limiting for these patients' diets, said Ogden.
"Also, the threat of accidental exposure or ingestion of allergenic foods -- a common cause of allergic reactions and anaphylaxis in food allergic children is markedly diminished," she said.
Fifteen percent of food allergic individuals experience an accidental ingestion per year, said Dr. Tania Mucci, an allergist at Winthrop University Hospital in New York. While egg allergic patients would still need to be diligent, the potential for oral egg immunotherapy to decrease the risk of a severe reaction from an accidental ingestion would be extremely valuable for the patients mental and of course, physical health.
"Oral immunotherapy for food allergy, if safe and standardized, would be the Holy Grail for food allergic patients," said Mucci. "Immunotherapy to grasses, trees, cat, and dog is curative in 75 percent of patients. At this point in time, all we have to offer for food allergic patients are strategies for avoidance."