Mucosal allergy: role of mast cells and eosinophil granulocytes in the gut

Baillieres Clin Gastroenterol. 1996 Sep;10(3):443-59. doi: 10.1016/s0950-3528(96)90052-4.


Despite the progress made in understanding the mechanisms of allergic disease, the pathophysiology and clinical significance of intestinal allergic reactions is largely unclear. The intestinal mucosa is pre-destined for allergic reactions against food proteins and other antigens, and a number of studies indicate that allergic reactions occur in the GI tract. However, only a few epidemiological data are available, and the mechanisms are poorly understood. Intestinal allergic reactions may be different to classical IgE-mediated reactions because patients with intestinal allergy often have negative skin tests and low levels of serum IgE. There is increasing evidence that, as with the findings in the skin and lung, mast cells and eosinophils play a central role in mediating intestinal allergic reactions. Furthermore, both types of cell are found to be activated in a number of other GI inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and eosinophilic gastroenteritis. However, the relationship between these pathologies and intestinal allergy is largely unclear. A major clinical problem is the lack of appropriate means for confirming the diagnosis of intestinal allergy. However, new test systems have been developed--such as the measurement of eosinophil mediators in stool samples or endoscopic provocation tests performed locally at the intestinal mucosa, which may improve the possibility of identifying afflicted patients on an objective basis. Since symptoms of intestinal allergic reactions are variable and non-specific, the diagnosis requires the use of multiple tests and the exclusion of other pathologies such as infectious disease or non-immunological intolerance reactions. The preferred therapeutic option is avoidance of the allergens of relevance; however, this approach can be realized only in some patients, whereas others require additional treatment, for example, with oral cromoglycate or corticosteroids. Although we do not yet know to what extent intestinal allergic reactions may be an aetiological factor in GI diseases, such reactions should be considered in the differential diagnosis of unclear intestinal inflammation and irritable bowel syndrome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Eosinophils / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity / diagnosis
  • Hypersensitivity / epidemiology
  • Hypersensitivity / immunology*
  • Intestinal Diseases / diagnosis
  • Intestinal Diseases / epidemiology
  • Intestinal Diseases / etiology
  • Intestinal Mucosa / immunology*
  • Mast Cells / physiology*
  • Prevalence