Get Allergy Shots and Feel Good Again
Allergies & asthma are two quite personal conditions in that they can work so differently from one person to another. Treatment plans don’t come in a one-size-fits-all formula. Lifestyle choices and/or demands can make it easier or more difficult to avoid allergens. Sometimes, medications that once worked have become ineffective. When medications aren’t helping and you’re having a hard time avoiding your allergens, it might be time to consider allergen immunotherapy, or allergy shots.
Immunotherapy: What Is It?
With immunotherapy treatment, you receive increasingly higher doses of your allergens over time, gradually becoming less sensitive to them. Allergy shots have been proven effective for symptoms caused by grass, tree, and weed pollens; dust mites; cat dander; certain molds; and stinging insects.
To help determine if you will be a good candidate for allergy shots, your physician will look at two key factors: how long you experience allergy symptoms each year and how well other treatments are controlling them. People with perennial or prolonged allergies are generally the best match, as well as those needing multiple medications for their symptoms. A switch to allergy shots is usually not cost-effective for people whose seasons last only a few months and who are achieving good control with cromolyn sodium inhalers, topical corticosteroids, or non-sedating antihistamines.
With immunotherapy treatment, you receive increasingly higher doses of your allergens over time, gradually becoming less sensitive to them.
Additional considerations include your age and health. People into their 60s can be good candidates for treatment. However, the younger the person, the better the chances for relief, and the more years of potential benefit. Your body must also be able to respond to epinephrine, which would be used in the rare event that you should have a severe reaction from the injections. Arrhythmia or other heart problems would make you ineligible in this case.
How Immunotherapy Works
Once your doctor has verified that immunotherapy is a good option for you, he or she will conduct tests that will determine what allergens should be in your allergy extract. Skin testing is one of the most common, accurate, and inexpensive ways to do this.
In prick/scratch testing, a small drop of a possible allergen is placed on the skin, followed by lightly pricking or scratching through the drop with a needle. In intradermal (under the skin) testing, a very small amount of allergen is injected into the outer layer of skin. With either test, if you are allergic to the substance, you will develop redness, swelling, and itching at the test site within 20 minutes. You may also see a raised, round area that looks like a hive. Usually, the larger the area, or wheal, the more sensitive you are to the allergen. Most people are tested for about 5 to 25 allergens at a time, depending on whether sensitivity is being tested for indoor allergens only, or for both indoor and outdoor allergens.
After allergen identification, comes the actual treatment. You’ll begin with shots once or twice a week, until you start to feel relief. This process usually takes four to six months. Monthly maintenance doses are then given to help keep your allergen resistance level steady. You can expect your symptoms to be reduced after your first year of immunotherapy. If not, the use of allergy shots for your condition should be reconsidered. After you’ve been taking allergy shots for three to five years, it’s time to stop for a reevaluation of treatment and symptoms. If the result is a return of symptoms, another course of therapy may be recommended, as a gradual relapse has been known to occur in some people.
A Quicker Alternative
Because of time, cost, and convenience issues, rush immunotherapy has reemerged as a viable option to conventional allergy shots. First suggested 65 years ago by British physician John Freeman, this accelerated version of the traditional course of shots brings people to maintenance dosing levels within several weeks instead of months.
Source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, www.aafa.org
This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, March/April 2011.