Sometime soon, people with severe hay fever will be able to take a prescription pill — rather than receive allergy shots — to control their symptoms.
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week approved the drug Oralair to treat hay fever that certain grass pollens cause in people ages 10 through 65 years.
Oralair is a fast-dissolving tablet that patients place under the tongue. It contains extracts from five types of grass pollen: sweet vernal, orchard, perennial rye, timothy and Kentucky bluegrass.
Just take a pill
Like current treatments that are injected, the drug harnesses the body’s immune system to relieve allergies. But now patients can merely take a pill, rather than having to visit a doctor’s office to receive a shot for their grass allergy.
Patients will take their first dose of the drug in the doctor’s office. Health care providers will observe the patient for at least 30 minutes for signs of any adverse effects. The patient can take later doses at home.
There has been a low incidence of a severe, whole-body allergic reaction to the medicine. So doctors also must prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector to patients taking the drug, and train them on how to use it.
Drug maker Greer Laboratories told Reuters that it hopes to start selling Oralair within the next several weeks.
New era for hay fever sufferers
The FDA approval “ushers in a new era for the management of allergic disease,” says David Lang, MD.
Dr. Lang is Director of the Department of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Cleveland Clinic.
“This is a more convenient form of immunotherapy that, similar to allergy shots, can modify the immune response to provide protection against the symptoms typically experienced with grass pollen exposure,” Dr. Lang says.
The risk of a reaction is also much lower with the Oralair pill than with allergy shots, Dr. Lang says.
“It can be administered co-seasonally or it can be administered year-round, as we do allergy shots, to reduce your level of allergic potential,” Dr. Lang says.
Hay fever getting more widespread
Nearly one in five Americans suffers from hay fever, which has become much more widespread in recent years, Dr. Lang says. Among people who suffer from seasonal allergies, grass pollen allergy is the most common, he says.
“This is an important advance that has clear potential to benefit a large segment of the U.S. population,” Dr. Lang says.
Trees, grasses and weeds cause hay fever. The wind carries their pollen. When someone with hay fever breathes in pollen, the body releases chemicals that cause these symptoms:
- Itchy nose, mouth, eyes, throat or skin
- Problems with smell
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
Typically, patients who receive allergy shots are unable to get adequate relief by taking regular medication and avoiding pollen by using air conditioning.
A few items of note
There are a few caveats about the new drug, Dr. Lang says. One is that it is effective for grass allergies only. Allergy shots can treat several allergies at the same time.
“If you have a broad range of allergy, this may not be the best therapeutic option for you,” Dr. Lang says.
Also, Dr. Lang says, there are no studies currently that compare the effectiveness of the new pill with allergy shots.
Adverse reactions can include swelling in the mouth, throat irritation or itching inside the throat, ears or mouth. But in studies, patients have tolerated the medicine well, Dr. Lang says.