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When food becomes hazardous to your health
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SALT LAKE CITY — Michelle Fogg had hay fever — itchy eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose — since she was a kid, but she wasn’t allergic to food.
Then, six years ago, something happened. Eating became painful.
She had trouble swallowing, nausea and debilitating stomach pain.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t swallow anything, it just became that frustrating,” she said.
She was intimately familiar with food allergies — Fogg is president of the Utah Food Allergy Network which she founded because her now-10-year-old daughter, Emalee, has severe food allergies — but didn’t make the connection with her own symptoms.
She went to the doctor, but didn’t get answers until she went to her allergist for a regular checkup.
“He said, ‘I think I know what you have. There is this new thing…” Fogg recalls.
The new thing was eosinophilic esophagitis, or EoE, for short. It’s an allergic condition of the esophagus, characterized by a large number of eosiniphils, a kind of white blood cell, in the esophagus. Eating particular foods cause the esophagus to become inflamed and even scarred.
In Fogg’s case, it happens when she ingests milk, wheat, corn, eggs and potatoes.
This made simple tasks, like buying food, complicated.
“(Grocery) shopping used to be easy and convenient, quick in and out. Now after the diagnosis it’s pretty depressing, kind of daunting,” she said as she pushes a cart down a supermarket aisle, pointing out all the items she cannot eat.
At her 10th wedding anniversary dinner at a Mexican restaurant, she ate nothing but rice and beans.
“You kinda feel like a freak of nature, you know,” Fogg said. “Who can’t eat food?”
The condition was first described in the late '70s and early '80s as a rare condition, according to Dr. Rafael Firszt, Fogg’s doctor, an allergist with University of Utah Health Care doing research on the condition, ”and we now know that to not be true.”
According to a recent study out of North Carolina, one of every 1,700 people has EoE and, Firszt said, and the numbers have been growing, just as allergies and asthma in general are on the rise.
For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with food allergies went up 18 percent from 1997 to 2007.
Possible explanations for the general rise of allergies and asthma in the industrialized world include pollution, climate changes that trigger a rise in pollen levels, the overuse of antibiotics, a diet of more processed foods and fewer fruits and vegetables, and the fact that children often aren’t exposed to common allergens, such as nuts and shellfish, at an early age. The most often-cited theory is the “hygiene hypothesis” — the idea that an over-sanitized environment can lead to decreased disease resistance.
The authors of that North Carolina study say they may be underestimating the number of people with EoE. Firszt thinks there are lots of people who have the condition and don’t know it.
For example, when he talks to parents of EoE patients “they often have symptoms that are very suggestive of that condition,” Friszt said.
EoE is usually diagnosed in adulthood and more often among men.
“My strong opinion is a lot of these patients probably started their symptoms as a child,” Firszt said.
After Michelle Fogg discovered she had EoE, her daughter, Emalee, began having symptoms.
“Chonic pain, not a day without stomach pain,” she said.
Symptoms of EoE include difficulty swallowing, food sticking in the throat, chest and stomach pain, and reflux that doesn’t respond to medicine.
Emalee was diagnosed with EoE and was eventually told she could safely eat only rice, oils, sugar and salt. She lives on a diet of formula ingested through a feeding tube.
“Her world just came crashing down around her because we took almost everything away,” Fogg said. “The whole focus went off of myself onto her.”
She said doctors now suspect her infant son, Cameron, has the disorder.
Fogg now tries, as much as she can, to take food out of the social picture for her family. Eating to live, she says, rather than living to eat. She said it’s been a difficult adjustment.
“I pray every day (that Emalee will some day be able to eat her meals),” she said. “I mean, I hope so.”
“I have confidence they are going to find a treatment ... but right now there’s nothing she can use.”
Resources for Inormation:
Food Allergy Research and Education
The American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders