Local doctor using candy and other foods to treat food allergies

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Imagine curing food allergies by eating the foods one is allergic to, including candy!

That's what patients undergoing oral immunotherapy, or OIT, are doing. OIT involves taking increasing doses of foods containing the allergen daily until tolerance has increased to the point where the allergen has no effect.

“It offers a different approach from just avoiding food, strict avoidance,” said Dr. Eli Silver, an Immunology Specialist with University Hospitals, who is one of the few doctors offering the treatment locally. “Sometimes I'm joking that I'm prescribing Reese's peanut butter cups to kids.”

Silver said the newer treatment option for food allergies is largely safe and has been effective in about 87 percent of his patients since he began offering it about a year and a half ago.

“Parents are coming here all the way from New York or Pennsylvania because they want to have that freedom, freedom from stress, from fear and for their kids to grow up like regular kids,” he said.

His patients start with a small dose of the allergen, mixed with Kool-Aid, before advancing to a pill form and then food items. It takes five to 10 months to reach the maintenance dose level, which lasts about three years until the patient has outgrown the allergy, according to Silver.

During that time, the patient can eat foods that they were previously allergic to.

14-year-old Zachary Wolfe, of Cleveland Heights, underwent six months of daily doses each for his egg and peanut allergies. It also included weekly and bi-weekly visits to the doctor’s office. He ate pizza for the first time in Silver’s office. He’s now on his maintenance dose of one full egg and eight peanuts every day.

“I can order what I want and not worry about what's in it and worry about having to use the EpiPen while I'm out with my friends,” he said.

His mother, Julie, brought both of her kids to see Silver following several hospitalizations for anaphylactic shock and after other treatments failed. Her 12-year-old daughter Zoe is being treated for nut allergies.

“It's a constant worry and you want them to fit in with their peers. It's sort of tough when they can't eat anything,” Wolfe said. “When you go into it you're like I've been preventing him from eating this for so long, and now I'm having him eat it every day, and it seems insane. But they’ve both had like no issues… it’s life changing”

Side effects may include scratchy throat and itchy ears, according to Silver, and about 10 percent of his patients have had to use an EpiPen following side effects, but nearly all have opted to continue treatment.