Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 March 2007
Allergy is caused by an immune reaction that is out of all proportion to the antigenic stimuli. Classical allergy is a type I hypersensitivity reaction mediated by the interaction of mast cells (and eosinophils) coated with allergen-specific IgE and a cross-linking allergen. The physiological outcome is inflammation commonly displayed by urticaria, rhinitis, vomiting and diarrhoea, depending on the route of allergen entry. In extreme reactions anaphylactic shock can result that may lead to death. Chronic allergic responses most commonly present themselves as asthma and eczema. All these symptoms are the consequence of an imbalanced immune system making an unsuitable response to an environmental or food antigen. On bacterial colonisation of the colon after birth the appropriate microbiological stimuli is essential to redress the balance of the skewed T-helper 2 immune response present in the newborn. This normal interaction between baby and microbes is thought to be compromised in the Western world, with a reduction in bifidobacteria and an increase in clostridial species, particularly in bottle-fed infants. The use of probiotic therapy to prevent allergic disease has been demonstrated in two studies using a probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG in neonates. A long-term reduction in allergy has been shown in the test group, with lactobacillus reducing the incidence of atopic eczema. Management of allergy through probiotics has also been demonstrated in infants, using lactobacilli to control atopic eczema and cow's milk allergy. Unfortunately, these positive results have not been repeated in studies with older children and young adults.