Egg Allergy: Symptoms, First Aid Treatment, & Allergy-Free Eggs. Eggs. They’re cheap, easily available and a good source of protein. They’re also among the most versatile of ingredients, used in a variety of dishes, both savory and sweet. Eggs are also the most widely eaten foods across the world, considered kosher by the Jews and halal by the Muslims — and even lacto-ovo-vegetarians rely on eggs to meet their protein needs.
But eggs are also the cause of the most common food allergy. About 12 million Americans, 1.2 million Canadians, 17 million Europeans and four million Australians have food allergies — and mostly, this is an allergy to eggs or egg whites. Children are the most affected by these allergic reactions.
Commonly, people who are allergic to eggs suffer from wheezing, nausea, headache, stomachache and itchy hives. But some people can suffer a severe, life-threatening, multi-system allergic reactions called anaphylaxis. Their mouths, throats and the airways leading to the lungs begin to swell, making it difficult for to breathe. Blood pressure drops dangerously, and people could pass out or suffer from shock.
Each year, about 200 people die from food allergic reactions in the United States alone, and the
Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) believes that the actual figures may be much higher since allergic reactions are responsible for almost 50,000 hospital emergency room visits each year.
And those numbers are only of the people who suffer from what doctors call “true food allergies” that make them consistently allergic to some foods. A larger number of children have sporadic allergic reactions to foods — eggs included — at some point. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, three to eight percent of children will have an adverse reaction to food some time in their lives.
What’s worse, preventing these allergic reactions goes beyond simply turning away from the egg stand in the grocery or supermarket. Because eggs are found in hundreds of dishes, people who are allergic to them have to be constantly vigilant — scouring ingredient lists of packaged foods and asking food attendants in restaurants or planes if their dishes have eggs in them. And what happens to children who attend public schools? The circumstances for families of children with allergies can often turn out to be a nightmare.
Because egg proteins are also used as a component of vaccines, a number of children have suffered allergic reactions after being inoculated. Some have been rushed to emergency rooms, and a number of them have even died.
In the making: allergy-free eggs
Thankfully, Australian scientists are working on developing allergy-free eggs — both for use in food consumption and the production of common vaccines such as flu vaccines.
Two centers of scientific excellence in that country are bringing their respective expertise to collaborate on this project. Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) is recognized for its know-how in macromolecule modification through RNA interference (RNAi) technology, while the Deakin University is internationally recognized for its research into allergies.
There are 40 proteins in egg whites, and four of these can cause allergies. The CSIRO and Deakin University experts say they have found a way to isolate and “switch off” these four egg allergens, then reintroduce the proteins back into the egg.
This will create a hypoallergenic egg that can produce chickens that lay allergy-free eggs — at least in theory, the researchers explain.
Deakin University Adjunct Professor Dr. Tim Doran said his team would modify the proteins — and not the genes or DNA of the chickens — using RNAi technology that has previously been used by CSIRO to modify important traits in crops.
“We are not producing genetically modified chickens as part of this research,” says Dr. Doran. “We are simply modifying the proteins within the egg whites to produce chickens which lay allergy-free eggs.”
These modified eggs are expected to be able to produce chickens that lay hypoallergenic eggs — but the genes and DNA of the chicken remain unaltered.
“This is a completely novel approach in that previous egg-allergy research has cloned the egg-white-allergen genes but no-one has gone as far as to make the proteins non-allergenic,” says Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu, from Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences.
“Previous egg allergy research has cloned the egg white allergen genes, but no-one has gone as far as to make the proteins non-allergenic,” he adds.
The research is being undertaken jointly by the CSIRO, Deakin University and the Poultry Co-operative Research Center.
The research has the potential to help thousands of families who have to monitor exposure to eggs, Dr. Doran says. “The effect of this type of allergy on the whole family is immense,” says Dr. Doran, himself the parent of an allergic child. “In many cases all food has to be prepared in the home as you can’t guarantee that food purchased outside the home won’t have traces of egg white…We recently did a long-haul flight with the family and had to prepare all meals to take on the plane,” he recounts.
And for new parents, the research will take away the anxiety that comes with serving eggs to their infants for the first time, says Dr. Suphioglu. “There’s evidence that new parents are exposing their infants to egg products for the first time in the car parks of major children’s hospitals just so they are close to medical attention in case their child reacts adversely,” he claims.
The three-year research project has only just begun, but experts expect allergy-free eggs to be created and available in supermarket shelves within five to 10 years.
If things go well, the research may also lead to the production of allergy-free flu vaccines. Some vaccines contain traces of egg and currently, people who are allergic to egg whites, are prevented from having a standard flu vaccine.
Previous researchers have cloned the allergen genes. In other studies, like one conducted by German and Swiss chemists in 2008, ways to treat eggs to make them safe for allergy-sufferers to consume were explored. This project by the Australian researchers is the first to attempt to render the proteins harmless.
More on egg allergies
Egg allergies usually first appear when kids are very young, and many children do outgrow these allergies by the time they’re five years old.
Most people who are allergic to eggs react to the proteins in egg whites, but there are some who can’t also tolerate even the proteins in the yolk.
For most people who have egg allergies, reactions usually happen within minutes to hours after eating them.
Symptoms for egg allergy reactions
Mild egg allergy reactions include:
• Hives (especially over the neck and face)
• Nasal congestion
• Watery, red eyes
Moderate or severe egg allergy reactions include:
• Swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue
• Flushing or redness of the face
• Chest discomfort or tightness
• Difficulty breathing
• Difficulty swallowing
• Dizziness or light-headedness
• Fear or feeling of apprehension or anxiety
• Nausea and vomiting
• Cramps or pain in the abdomen
First aid for egg allergy reactions
For a mild to moderate reaction:
• Reassure the person having the reaction, since anxiety can worsen symptoms.
• Apply cool compresses and over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream on itchy rashes.
• Go see a doctor who may recommend an over-the-counter antihistamines.
• Watch the person for signs of increasing distress.
For a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis):
• Check the person’s airway, breathing, and circulation (the ABC’s of Basic Life Support). A warning sign of dangerous throat swelling is a very hoarse or whispered voice, or coarse sounds when the person is breathing in air. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.
• Call 911.
• Calm and reassure the person.
• If the person has emergency allergy medication on hand, help the person take or inject the medication. Avoid oral medication if the person is having difficulty breathing.
• Take steps to prevent shock. Let the person lie flat, raise his or her feet about 12 inches, and cover him or her with a coat or blanket. Do NOT place the person in this position if a head, neck, back, or leg injury is suspected or if it causes discomfort.
• Assume that any allergy shots the person has already received will provide complete protection.
• Place a pillow under the person’s head if he or she is having trouble breathing. This can block the airways.
• Give the person anything by mouth if he or she is having trouble breathing.
Egg Allergy: Symptoms, First Aid Treatment, and Allergy-Free Eggs. Posted 19 March 2012.