What Is Eosinophilic Esophagitis?

Eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) is an inflammation of the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach), caused by a specific white blood cell – the eosinophil. Nearly three-quarters of affected cases occur in white males. This is a relatively newly recognized disease that has been increasingly diagnosed in adults and children over the past decade.

Diagnosis of Eosinophilic Esophagitis

Currently, eosinophilic esophagitis is diagnosed by upper endoscopy and biopsy. The endoscopy sometimes reveals rings (Figure 1), white plaques (patches) (Figure 2), or furrows in the esophagus (Figure 3); however, EoE may be present even if the esophagus looks normal. That's why we take biopsy samples. Biopsy samples look for an overabundance of eosinophils in the esophageal tissue.

Ringed Esophagus White Plaques in Esophagus Linear Furrows in Esophagus

Outlook for Patients With EoE

Based on what is known to date, eosinophilic esophagitis does not cause cancer of the esophagus and is not thought to limit life expectancy in any way. Current information suggests if left untreated, EoE may lead to esophageal narrowing over time.

Treatment at Penn

There are two main treatment approaches to eosinophilic esophagitis: steroid medications and dietary management. There is also a third approach for some patients, called esophageal dilatation.

Drug Treatments for EoE

Steroids are the most commonly used medication for both the control of the inflammation and the direct suppression of the eosinophils. These medications are typically taken topically and in severe cases may need to be taken orally (in pill form). Steroids may need to be taken long term, although their long-term use for eosinophilic esophagitis has not been well-studied. Occasionally, continued swallowed use of steroids can result in Candida infections (yeast infections of the mouth and esophagus) as a side effect. A drug class that is currently being investigated for future use is biologic agents. These drugs would specifically target the white blood cell itself, the eosinophil.

Dietary Management for EoE

Food allergies clearly contribute to EoE; however, no one has yet to determine which foods might be the cause. The more common foods associated with food allergies are milk, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, beef, wheat, fish, shellfish, corn and soy. In the case of EoE, a single food may be problematic in some people, while many foods may be the cause in others.

With this in mind, we can try several dietary approaches. In a "targeted" approach, foods are eliminated from the diet one at a time, as best indicated by allergy testing. Unfortunately though, typical allergy tests, such as skin prick tests or blood tests, are not usually effective for determining the problematic foods responsible for EoE. Therefore, we often use another type of elimination diet, the six food elimination diet, instead.

The six food elimination diet excludes six foods (dairy, eggs, nuts, wheat, fish, and soy), and you slowly add them back into your diet until you find the culprit.

A third approach, an "elemental diet" consists of removing all sources of protein from the diet. This is a very strict, tasteless amino acid formula-based diet that may require a feeding tube hooked up directly to the stomach to obtain enough nourishment. In this diet, only amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) are supplied to patients. This is, however, the most effective diet for people with EoE.

With any of these food trial diets, foods are slowly reintroduced in an attempt to discover which ones are causing the allergic reaction. Repeat biopsies and endoscopic examinations are necessary to determine which foods are not problematic.

Other Non-Drug Approaches for EoE

Another treatment that has been tried for some patients is esophageal dilatation, which is specifically for patients who get food stuck in their esophagus.

Support Networks for EoE

Nonprofit Organizations

American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders: Non-profit organizations for adults, children and families living with eosinophilic gastrointestinal disorders. Web site includes a listing of clinical trials, educational materials, news items and links to other online resources.

Consortium Of Eosinophilic Gastrointestinal Disease Researchers (CEGIR): The CEGIR aims to improve the lives of individuals with eosinophilic gastrointestinal disorders through innovative research, clinical expertise and education via collaborations between scientists, health care providers, patients and professional organizations. Patients can can register to be contacted about clinical research opportunities and updates on the progress of the research projects.

CURED Foundation: CURED works to raise substantial funding to aid in research for EGID patients and their families, to increase awareness about the complex group of diseases.

Professional Organizations

International Eosinophilic Society: An international group of scientists who study eosinophilic biology and share information.

Related Specialties and Services

  • Allergy and Asthma
  • Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition
  • Research

    Our large clinical population provides an extensive source of data for research. Currently, we are expanding our investigations and are looking for answers to these questions:

  • What causes EoE and how can it be prevented?
  • What role does genetics play in the disease?
  • How can we improve diagnosis and disease management techniques?
  • What are the long-term health effects of EoE?
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