Antihistamines and other allergy medications offer a quick fix for the sneezing, runny nose, itchiness and teary eyes brought on by allergies. But a potentially longer-lasting treatment often goes ignored: allergy shots.
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More formally called allergen immunotherapy, allergy shots work to slowly decrease a person’s sensitivity to certain allergens and reduce their symptoms.
“When it’s impossible to avoid allergy triggers or allergy medicine isn’t working, it may be time to consider allergy shots,” says allergist Ronald Purcell, MD.
Who’s a good candidate?
Allergy shots can’t protect against food, drug or latex allergies. But they may be able to relieve nose (allergic rhinitis), eye (allergic conjunctivitis) and airway (allergic asthma) symptoms triggered by:
Airborne allergens, such as:
- Cat and dog dander.
- Dust mites.
- Mold spores.
- Pollen from trees, grasses or weeds.
Insect venom from:
- Yellow jackets.
“Evidence suggests that shots may effectively treat itchy skin rashes caused by airborne allergens,” Dr. Purcell says. “They may also prevent people with allergic rhinitis from developing asthma.”
While allergy shots are generally suitable for adults and children over age 5, they aren’t for everyone. People with severe asthma or heart disease, or who need to take medications such as beta blockers, aren’t good candidates for them.
“Your other health conditions and your ability to complete the shot regimen are important considerations,” Dr. Purcell says. “Talk to your physician to see if they’re appropriate for you.”
No quick fix
Like vaccines, allergy shots build up immunity. However, “this is not a quick-fix therapy,” Dr. Purcell cautions. “Shot programs range from three to five years and consist of a build-up phase and a maintenance phase.”
That’s why they’re typically recommended only after you’ve tried medications and taken steps to avoid the things you’re allergic to.
During the build-up phase, you’ll receive injections once or twice a week for three to six months. Each one contains a small dose of the allergen that gradually increases each week. Bit by bit, your body becomes used to the allergen. And, if they’re successful, your symptoms will decrease.
Once you reach the highest dose, you continue getting what are called maintenance shots every two to four weeks.
How long will the benefits of allergy shots last? Three years of treatment can result in tolerance that persists for at least seven years and, for many patients, indefinitely, Dr. Purcell says.
A century of safe treatment
It’s important to consult a board-certified allergist about shots. Very rarely, allergy shots can lead to anaphylactic shock. An allergist’s staff is trained to treat potential systemic reactions such as hives, wheezing or hypotension.
The slight risk of reaction from shots should not be a deterrent, Dr. Purcell says. The allergen extracts used in shots are highly standardized today — they’re produced consistently from batch to batch for reliable quality and dosing.
“Shots have been given for more than 100 years. This is a therapy that has withstood the test of time,” he says.
If your allergies are making you miserable and you are willing to invest the time, consider asking an allergist if shots may be right for you.