Eosinophilic Esophagitis, also known as “EE,” is a gastrointestinal disorder that, like Celiac Disease, seems to be increasing in frequency of diagnosis. I first heard of EE when I was in my pediatric residency. I worked with a Pediatric GI specialist who seemed to diagnose all of his infant patients with gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) with EE. While I was learning about EE I had no idea that my dear husband had the very same disease!
My husband was diagnosed with EE in 2009 after having several episodes of choking and feeling like he had food stuck in his throat. In usual wife fashion I recommended over and over again (looking back, perhaps I nagged a little bit) that he get evaluated for his swallowing problems. He finally saw a GI doc following an ED visit for a choking episode, and had an upper endoscopy with biopsy performed that showed numerous eosinophils in his esophagus.
Eosinophils are white blood cells that are usually involved in allergic reactions. Although doctors are not exactly sure what causes EE, it is believed that food allergies/intolerances play a role. Both adults and children can be affected by EE, but the symptoms are different in these two groups. In adults EE leads to symptoms of difficulty swallowing (feeling like food is stuck in the throat), chest and/or abdominal pain, and heartburn. Infants and small children who are affected may refuse to eat, develop failure to thrive, and suffer from abdominal pain and/or nausea and vomiting. Some babies who are diagnosed and treated for “reflux” by their pediatricians may actually have EE.
Most patients with EE are referred for food allergy testing. If there are food allergies, avoiding the food “triggers” often helps their EE symptoms to improve. Infants and toddlers with EE may need to be put on a hypoallergenic formula, such as Neocate, to avoid allergic triggers. Other treatments for EE include proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which are a type of anti-reflux medication, and swallowed inhaled steroids (such as Flovent) to decrease inflammation in the esophagus.
My husband’s GI doctor tested him for Celiac Disease, as, in his experience, he has encountered many patients who have both Celiac Disease and Eosinophilic Esophagitis. Although my husband does not have Celiac Disease, he carries one of the main Celiac genes, and he has found that his EE symptoms have markedly improved since going on a gluten free diet. I find this to be very fascinating as it makes me suspect he may be gluten sensitive to some degree.
Dr. Peter Green from Columbia University, one of the nation’s leading experts in Celiac Disease research, published a study showing a clear link between Celiac Disease and EE in 2012. In his paper (see link), both children and adults with Celiac Disease are at a much higher risk of also having EE. There have been a handful of smaller studies also showing an association between the two disorders, but, like with much research related to Celiac Disease and gluten-related disorders, more work needs to be done.
For additional information I recommend the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) page on Eosinophilic Esophagitis.