Does the springtime pollen send you indoors in search of relief? Do you hate visiting your best friend because the dander from her pets turns your eyes itchy and red? Or maybe it’s dust that starts you sneezing and reaching for tissues.
If you have allergies, symptoms can make it difficult to do the things you enjoy. Immunotherapy could help. “Immunotherapy is the name we give to a treatment that changes the immune system,” said Tara Carr, MD, an allergist and immunologist with Banner - University Medicine.
Your immune system is what drives allergies, especially allergies to environmental pollens, dust, mold and pet dander. That’s because your immune system creates an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). “When you are exposed to whatever you are allergic to, IgE is what causes cells to release the chemicals that cause your allergy symptoms,” Dr. Carr said.
How immunotherapy helps control allergies
With immunotherapy, you’re exposed to the substance you’re allergic to in a controlled way. Exposure to your allergen or allergens trains your immune system to ignore or become tolerant to it. So, over time, your body will gradually create less IgE and you won’t have as many allergy symptoms when you’re exposed to allergens.
Allergy shots for immunotherapy
Allergy shots are the most common way people get immunotherapy. It is called subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT) since the shots are delivered under the skin. They contain the allergens that trigger your symptoms.
Allergy shots require a prescription. With them, you’ll get an injection of a small dose of the allergen every week for a few months, gradually building up to a full treatment dose. Once you reach the treatment dose, you can space out the shots more. They are usually administered every three to four weeks for five years or longer.
“Allergy shots can be tailored to include the allergens you’re allergic to, and when they are administered at the correct dose, they are very effective,” Dr. Carr said. They can also treat allergic asthma, so if you try this treatment, you may not need as much asthma medication.
Immunotherapy is also available for stinging insects such as wasps, honeybees, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants. “It can reduce the risk of anaphylaxis, which is a serious reaction that can cause shock, difficulty breathing and death. It can be used in people who have had allergic reactions to a sting previously,” Dr. Carr said.
There is a risk of an allergic reaction with allergy shots. The reaction could be mild or severe—severe cases could cause anaphylaxis. So, you’ll need to be monitored in the doctor’s office for at least 30 minutes after your injections to make sure you don’t have a reaction.
You can’t take certain medications that are prescribed to control your blood pressure or for treating other disorders when you’re getting allergy shots. So, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about the best ways to manage all your health conditions.
Tablets or drops for immunotherapy
Some people can take tablets for immunotherapy. This method is called sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) since the tablets are taken under the tongue. You put them under your tongue for one to two minutes and swallow them as they dissolve. Like allergy shots, they require a prescription and contain the substances that cause your allergy symptoms.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved immunotherapy tablets that treat allergies to northern grasses, ragweed and dust mites. Unlike allergy shots, they don’t need to be taken under a doctor’s supervision. You can take them year-round if needed, or before and during the pollen season if that controls your symptoms. You’ll need to take them at least three times a week and up to every day, and a full course of sublingual immunotherapy may take three to five years.
Some health care providers mix sublingual drops in their offices that are intended to treat other allergens. However, they are not FDA-approved. Dr. Carr said it’s unclear how effective this treatment is because the dosage isn’t standardized. Unlike the other types of immunotherapies for allergies, they are not covered by most private health insurance plans, Medicaid or Medicare.
Who can have immunotherapy for allergies?
If you’re interested in trying immunotherapy, talk to your doctor. You may be a candidate if you develop allergy symptoms when you’re exposed to the allergens. You’ll need allergy skin testing or IgE blood tests to be sure that allergens are triggering your symptoms. And you’ll have to be able to complete the treatment—that can mean many visits to your doctor in the case of allergy shots, and treatments that can last for years, whether you have shots or tablets.
How effective is immunotherapy?
Most people see improvement in their allergy symptoms with treatment. Some people need less medication to control their symptoms, and others get better control from the medications they use. In some cases, immunotherapy causes a long-lasting change to the immune system that lasts beyond the course of treatment. Other people need to continue immunotherapy indefinitely to keep their symptoms under control.
The bottom line
If pollen, dust, mold or pet dander are causing sneezing, a runny nose and itchy, red eyes, immunotherapy might help. This treatment gradually exposes you to the substance you’re allergic to, and over time your body learns not to react to it. If you would like to talk to an allergist to learn about your options for controlling your symptoms, reach out to Banner Health.