Is It Really Possible to Cure Your Own Food Allergies?

Emmaeatscarrotss, a TikTok user, is attempting ad-hoc immunotherapy for an audience of thousands. But will her journey work? We asked allergists.

Feb 11 2021, 5:35pm

Over the course of eight months, TikTok user emmaeatscarrotss has been eating carrots. Rather, she’s eaten small amounts of a carrot (or some carrot-derivative, like a cupcake) in the hope that she can cure herself of what she describes as “a really bad carrot allergy.” On day one, in June 2020, she started with three grams of a baby carrot and experienced an allergic reaction: increased heart rate, tongue swelling, “feeling really funny,” etc., and took Benadryl for relief. “If anyone I know finds this account, don’t tell my mom I’m doing this,” she says at the end of the video.

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More than 600,000 followers have watched Emma eat incrementally more carrot. Now, she’s up to 20 grams without having allergy symptoms—which, in her videos, she says is a first for her. (VICE was not able to contact Emma of emmaeatscarrotss but will update this article if so.)

Several of emmaeatscarrotss’s TikToks have amassed millions of views. Many of her videos include a disclaimer against following in her footsteps, likely to avoid any responsibility for a follower having a severe allergic reaction by mimicking her DIY cure attempt. Admittedly, her journey is fascinating to watch and has all the traits of a perfect narrative arc, including an ever-present sense of suspense and fear; Emma shows us her EpiPen in certain TikToks, holding it up as evidence that she’s prepared for a severe reaction, if one should ever occur.

But is emmaeatscarrotss’s journey one that will actually work? Is it possible to cure yourself of your own allergies? As allergists told VICE, kind of: It depends on the allergy—and it definitely should not be attempted without rigorous medical observation. 

A true food allergy—versus a food intolerance—involves an immune response to a specific component of certain foods (a protein in peanuts is the most common example), according to Mansi Kanuga, an allergist with Mayo Clinic. A lactose intolerant person might get bloated and have gas and stomach cramps, but if a person with a peanut allergy eats a Snickers bar, the symptoms range from an itchy and swollen mouth to anaphylactic shock and death. 

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What Emma of emmaeatscarrotss is doing is basically an ad hoc version of something called oral immunotherapy, or OIT. As Ivor Emanuel, an allergist at San Francisco ENT and Allergy, told VICE, OIT isn’t yet widely used because it’s still undergoing a lot of active research, and when it’s used, requires a lot of medical observation and intervention. Performed properly, OIT involves a medicalized version of what Emma is doing: giving a patient with a food allergy increasing amounts of the triggering food until they can tolerate it in small doses. 

“There’s been a lot of studies on OIT, but they haven’t been very successful,” Emanuel said. “They’ve found that you can get a little bit of temporary desensitization, but they’re not sure how long it lasts or how long you have to do it for, and of course it has to be done in a very controlled situation. Very few allergists will do it; it’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s not a common thing in everyday practice.”

Kanuga and Emanuel both said the most common application for OIT is in little kids with peanut allergies, because the greatest benefit of the therapy is diminishing the likelihood of a severe allergic reaction if/when a child accidentally eats something containing peanuts. 

“Oral immunotherapy is not about getting to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Kanuga said. She clarified that it’s mostly meant to diminish the dangers of highly triggering foods, not gaining the ability to freely eat those foods for the rest of one’s life. 

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Emanuel emphasized the difference between developing a tolerance to food allergies versus a tolerance to airborne allergens like cedar or pet dander. Gaining a stronger tolerance for airborne allergies is “why people get allergy shots,” Emanuel said. “Those are an immunotherapy method, because what you’re doing is giving a small dose of whatever you’re allergic to slowly over time, so it doesn’t cause a big reaction, and gradually, the immune system becomes tolerant of that.” 

The same is true of pet allergies; Emanuel said he’s seen several patients with asthma become slowly tolerant of their own/their partner’s cat, slowly and over time, based on steady, frequent exposure to the cat’s dander. 

But, as Kanuga said, allergic reactions to food are much more complex, less studied, and are more severe than things like sneezing or hayfever, which suck and are uncomfortable, but don’t necessarily cause your throat to close. 

Both Kanuga and Emanuel said that what Emma’s attempting—basically, DIY oral immunotherapy—isn’t advisable without the supervision of an allergist and nursing staff, who can monitor what you’re eating and be there if and when a severe reaction happens. Emma seems to know this, asking her viewers not to try this at home. At nearly 200 days in, she’s up to eating about half of a carrot. Perhaps the best thing she can do for herself and her followers at this point, is document turning her care over to an allergist.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.

Tagged:

Allergies, food allergy, airborne allergy, TikTok

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