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Allergies are a common complaint. An allergy is a sensitivity of the immune system to a specific substance and can cause symptoms ranging from the annoying (such as mild hay fever) to the potentially fatal (anaphylaxis). A variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to treat allergies, but these merely treat the symptoms. For some people, they are ineffective or have intolerable side effects at effective doses.
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Immunotherapy (Allergy Shots) to the Rescue
For some types of allergies, a therapy is available that treats the cause of allergies rather than the symptoms: immunotherapy, also known as allergy immunization or allergy shots. The principle behind this form of immunotherapy is that through repeated exposure, the immune system becomes desensitized to the allergen (the substance causing the allergic reaction). The therapy consists of regular injections of a purified form of the allergen or allergens that cause the patient's immune system to react, in amounts too small to cause a full-fledged reaction.
Immunotherapy takes a long time and consists of two phases. In the buildup phase, typically lasting three to seven months, the patient receives an injection one to three times a week, with the allergen dosage starting out very small and increasing gradually. After the buildup phase, the patient enters the maintenance phase, lasting up to five years or more, in which injections are given monthly in order to maintain the desensitization (Mayo Clinic, 2008). Relief from symptoms takes time to develop, but lasts throughout the therapy; sometimes the relief is lifelong.
Since allergy shots involve exposure to an allergen, a potential side effect is an allergic reaction, though this is uncommon because the allergen dose is small. The reaction may be a localized or systemic reaction; rarely, anaphylaxis occurs. For the patient's safety, he or she remains in the doctor's office for about half an hour after each injection to ensure there is no serious reaction (Mayo Clinic, 2008).
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Who Can Benefit From Immunotherapy?
Allergy shots may be indicated for people with seasonal allergies, allergies to indoor substances such as dust mites, and allergies to insect stings (Mayo Clinic, 2008). They are good for symptoms including hay fever and asthma (ACAAI). Sensitivity to seasonal and indoor allergens can drastically impact quality of life and sometimes restrict the lifestyle of sufferers. Insect sting allergies can lead to life-threatening anaphylactic shock in the case of an unexpected bee, wasp, or ant sting.
Unfortunately, immunotherapy is not indicated for all allergy sufferers (Mayo Clinic, 2008). They cannot treat food allergies; people suffering allergies to certain foods must continue to avoid those foods and, if recommended by their physicians, carry an emergency epinephrine injector such as an Epipen or Twinject. They are also not effective for certain allergy symptoms, such as uticaria (chronic hives).
According to some research, allergy shots can not only confer long-term or even lifetime relief from allergies — essentially, a cure — but can also prevent symptoms such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever) from progressing to asthma (ACAAI). If you suffer from environmental or insect allergies, visit your allergist (a regular physician can give you a referral if necessary) to find out if you can benefit from immunotherapy.