Q: What is allergen immunotherapy?
A: Allergen immunotherapy, more commonly known as allergy shots, is a long-term, preventive treatment that is very effective and generally well tolerated. It can decrease the symptoms for people who have allergic rhinitis (hay fever), allergic asthma, allergic conjunctivitis (eye allergies) or stinging insect allergy. It can even be effective in some individuals with atopic dermatitis (eczema).
* Who can benefit: Both children (typically over the age of 5) and adults can receive allergy shots. It is recommended to discuss them first with your allergist/immunologist before deciding. Make sure you consider the following when deciding to start allergy shots:
1. Length of allergy season.
2. Severity of symptoms.
3. How well medications help your symptoms.
4. How long you wish to avoid long-term medication use.
5. Ability to commit time for treatment.
6. Cost of treatment.
* How it works: Allergen immunotherapy is one of the more natural treatments offered. The way allergy shots work is by building your immunity/tolerance to the allergen and decreasing your sensitivity to allergens, which many times leads to lasting relief of allergy symptoms even after treatment has ended. Making the decision to halt allergy shots should be discussed with your allergist/immunologist.
Allergy shots work in two phases.
The buildup phase involves receiving injections with increasing amounts of allergens one or two times per week. This allows your immune system to build tolerance to the allergen.
The maintenance phase begins once the effective dose is reached. The effective dose depends on your level of allergen sensitivity and how your body responds to the buildup phase. It can take as long as 12 months in the second phase to notice an improvement. If successful, this phase is continued for three to five years.
* What to expect: Typically, redness and swelling are seen at the injection site either immediately or even several hours after treatment. In some cases, symptoms can include increased allergy symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion or hives. Serious reactions to allergy shots are rare and most times develop within 30 minutes of the shot. Therefore, it is highly recommended to receive your shot at a physician-supervised facility equipped with the proper staff and equipment and to wait at your doctor's office for at least 30 minutes after you receive your shot.
Syeda Hamadani, M.D., is a bilingual, board-certified physician at the Allergy and Asthma Group of Galen and a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.