The Guide to Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE)

Chest pain is a symptom of eosinophilic esophagitis. Laflor/Vetta/Getty Images

Sally had a hard time with eating. She often felt that food was getting stuck when she was eating, which made her uncomfortable. Four-year-old Adam was growing poorly, frequently agitated at the meal table, and often refused to eat. It turns out that both Sally and Adam had the same condition: eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE).

What is eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE)?

Eosinophilic esophagitis is part food allergy, part swallowing disorder.

EoE is a chronic immune system condition, only recently identified by the medical community. Rates of diagnosis have been increasing over the last 10 years, similar to the increasing rates of allergy and asthma diagnoses.

Eosinophils are white blood cells normally found in your digestive tract, but in EoE, they build up in the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach; also called feeding tube or gullet). The eosinophils produce a protein, which causes swelling or inflammation. This can lead to scarring and narrowing of the esophagus over time and the formation of fibrous tissue in the lining of your esophagus.

Eosinophils build up in the esophagus because the body is reacting to a food allergen, other allergens such as pollen, or is related to acid reflux. About 50% of people with EoE also have seasonal allergies or asthma. The damage to the esophagus makes it difficult to swallow or may lead to a feeling of food getting stuck.

Symptoms

Children and adults may experience the symptoms associated with EoE differently.

Adults may have a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia
  • Food impaction (food getting lodged after swallowing)
  • Chest pain similar to heartburn, which does not resolve with antacids
  • Upper abdominal pain
  • Symptoms that don’t resolve with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) medication
  • Regurgitation (back flow of undigested food)

Children’ symptoms may include the following:

  • Irritability
  • Problems with feeding
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Trouble swallowing
  • A sense of food becoming lodged 
  • Poor weight gain and growth (e.g., failure to thrive, malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies)
  • Non-responsive to GERD medication

Risk factors:

There are a few factors which make developing EoE more likely, but the evidence linking how, when and if EoE will occur is still emerging. However, a few risk factors have been identified:

  • Gender: EoE is more common in males than females.
  • Genetics: EoE seems to be genetically related; if a family member has EoE, the risk is higher for developing EoE.
  • Allergies and asthma: Those individuals with food allergies, other allergies, and asthma are at a higher risk for developing EoE.
  • Where you live: Living in a cold or dry climate increases your risk for EoE.
  • Season of the year: Individuals are more likely diagnosed between spring and fall when environmental allergens are higher and people are outdoors more often.

    Diagnosis

    Several tests are performed to diagnose EoE and including upper endoscopy and biopsy. Upper endoscopy uses a long narrow tube with a camera on the end inserted through the mouth and down your esophagus. This procedure allows the doctor to view your esophagus and look for inflammation and swelling, or any other abnormalities associated with EoE. A biopsy involves taking a sample of your esophageal tissue from several locations (usually two to four).

    If you are suspected to have EoE, your doctor may perform additional tests such as blood tests, medication trials, a food patch test, and diet modifications.

    Treatment

    If you are diagnosed with EoE, you will require ongoing treatment as EoE is a chronic, relapsing disease. The following are the most common treatment approaches; they may be used in combination for the most effective treatment plan:

    Diet

    There are 10-15 common foods that cause EoE, but the body can react to any food. Trigger foods must be removed from the diet on a long-term basis in order for symptoms to resolve. The irony of EoE is that your body may be reacting to a food you eat everyday—one that doesn’t appear to be problematic for you. Some of the most common foods allergens that trigger EoE are dairy, wheat, egg and soy.

    If a food or more than one food is causing your symptoms, those foods will be eliminated from your diet. Some cases of EoE require extensive dietary modifications. An elimination diet may be part of the treatment plan. In other cases, special formulas called elemental diets are used to eradicate all food sources of protein while covering an individual’s nutritional requirements, especially if multiple foods need to be removed from the diet.

    Medications

    Several medications may be used in the treatment of EoE. Typically, an acid blocker is tried first, but some people may not show symptom improvement. A topical steroid given as a puff or mixed into a slurry may be used. This can help relieve swelling in some individuals without the side effects associated with steroids because it isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream. If these medications don’t work, steroids, such as prednisone, may be prescribed.  Steroids may decrease the build up of eosinophils and allow your throat to heal. Some individuals may be on steroids on an ongoing basis.

    Dilation

    In those who experience narrowing of the esophagus (called strictures), a procedure called dilation may be recommended. This procedure widens the esophagus and makes swallowing easier. However, there are risks of esophageal tearing and perforation. Dilation does not address the underlying inflammation.

    Resources:

    Furuta et al. Eosinophilic Esophagitis in Children and Adults: A Systematic Review and Consensus Recommendations for Diagnosis and Treatment. Gastroenterology. 2007. 133: 1342-1363.

    Liacouras CA. Eosinophilic esophagitis: Updated consensus recommendations for children and adults. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2011; 128: 3-20.

    American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/related-conditions/eosinophilic-esophagitis.aspx

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