Let’s face it – people who don’t have allergies don’t get how miserable allergy symptoms make you. It’s especially bad during the fall and/or spring. During high pollen time, you may not even be able to function normally without medications.
Fortunately, there is a long-term way to improve your seasonal allergies and reduce dependence on medications: allergy shots (aka “immunotherapy”).
Allergy shots are weekly injections that desensitize the patient to the things they’re allergic to (pollens, animal dander, etc.). The injections are subcutaneous, injected under the skin, different from an intramuscular injection, like a flu vaccine, which go into muscle. The needle is much smaller than with a flu vaccine and therefore tends to hurt less.
Allergy shots are a proven way to treat seasonal allergies (rhinitis), and the results are usually long-lasting. It’s essentially a vaccination against a patient’s specific allergies. The benefits include decreased need for medications, less overall rhinitis symptoms, as well as less asthma symptoms (as discussed in another post, allergies and asthma go hand in hand). The primary drawbacks noted by patients are the time commitment and the slight risk of anaphylaxis (allergic reaction).
The time commitment is not as bad as it seems. It usually involves an initial appointment to get started with the shots, then weekly visits without an appointment to get regular shots. The initial appointment does takes several hours during which a patient get a series of injections of increasing serum concentrations. This process is clinically proven to be a safe way to build up to your maintenance dose. It also reduces treatment by several months in the long run.
Most allergists recommend 3-5 years of shots to get the full benefit. Many college students get allergy shots at student health, and some people who work further away can get their serum sent to another doctor’s office for administration.
Some people have local tenderness or redness in the location of the injections. This is normal, and most people find that it goes away as their bodies adjusts to the shots. This local reaction can be treated with Benadryl cream and/or ice packs.
The second drawback noted by some if the slight risk of anaphylaxis. Allergists provide instructions regarding the medications required to be taken beforehand –following these instructions decreases chances of having a reaction.
If you have a reaction at any point of your treatment, it will be treated with epinephrine, antihistamines, and possibly a steroid dose. Anaphylaxis sounds scary, but is very treatable. Prompt treatment by a physician assures safety and allows patients to continue shots. Most people never have a reaction, but it can happen. Taking pre-medications and waiting in the office for 20-30 minutes after shots will ensure proper treatment and minimize chance of reaction.
To get started with shots, see your allergist to get skin tested. Your allergist will provide direction to prepare, such as stopping antihistamines (Allegra, Zyrtec, Claritin, Benadryl) for at least a week beforehand. Antihistamines block the skin test, which is necessary to find out what to put in your allergy shot serum. Testing for all the standard allergens even if you have only spring or only fall allergies, is important to get the most out of your treatment.
Allergists usually recommend people get skin tested in winter or mid-summer. Pollen counts tend to be lower at these times of year, making it easier to stop antihistamines and allergists offices are less busy in winter and mid-summer, making it likely you will have more time with the doctor.
To find out if allergy shots are a way for you to reduce the misery of allergies, consult with an allergist.
*Information provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should not be used to guide the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition without the advice and supervision of a licensed, qualified health care provider.