An allergy develops when the immune system starts to misinterpret a harmless substance and sees it as a threat to the body’s safety, triggering allergic reactions that cause symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening.
Allergies are among the most frustrating common conditions involving the immune system, as they are chronic and management is frequently the best treatment option. While they often develop during childhood and some children outgrow them, people of all ages can develop allergies.
If you or your child have been diagnosed with an allergy or suspect that you have one, then you know how frustrating it can be to avoid allergens or manage allergic reactions and symptoms with medication. No one likes taking endless allergy pills that make them feel drowsy and unable to function at peak levels.
For some allergens, it might be no big deal to simply avoid your triggers. But if you’re allergic to a substance that’s difficult to avoid, such as pollen or dust mites, then your allergies are probably affecting your health and quality of life. Additionally, many people who are allergic to pet dander long for the companionship of an animal, despite their allergy.
The good news is that for some allergy sufferers, immunotherapy in the form of allergy shots can provide long-term relief and reduce a person’s allergic reactions over time. If you’re considering immunotherapy to improve you or your child’s quality of life, then you probably have some questions about how allergy shots work. Here’s what you need to know.
The Basics of Allergy Shots
Allergy shots are injectable treatments designed to safely and gradually reduce a person’s immune reaction to a specific allergen or multiple allergens. A tiny amount of each allergen is introduced into the body via an injection to increase the patient’s tolerance. Over time, the small amount of the allergen is gradually increased until the immune system’s reaction to it becomes less severe.
Allergen immunotherapy can be highly effective in helping people significantly reduce or even completely eliminate uncomfortable allergy symptoms like nasal congestion, allergic asthma, watery eyes, and skin issues. People who have trouble controlling their symptoms with medications are often good candidates for allergy shots.
How Long Do Allergy Shots Take to Work?
Deciding to get any type of immunotherapy is a long-term commitment. Once you’ve had an allergy test to confirm the allergens you want to build up resistance against, you and your allergist will discuss an allergy shot regimen for you.
Allergy shot treatment plans involve two phases: the build-up phase and the maintenance phase. The length of time for the entire treatment plan will vary from person to person, based on how their immune system reacts to the allergy shots.
The buildup phase generally lasts up to 6 months. During this phase, you will need to visit the doctor’s office one to three times every week for injections. This is to “build up” the amounts of the allergens used to alter your immune response.
Some patients opt for “rush immunotherapy” which involves getting multiple shots during each office visit in the buildup phase. This approach has the advantage of speeding up the process somewhat but is more likely to result in a severe reaction.
After the buildup phase, the maintenance phase is less intensive. You should be receiving maintenance dose injections only about once or twice a month. However, this phase is much longer, typically lasting three to five years or even longer.
Most people start noticing reduced allergic reactions to their allergens after a year or two. Some people can stop getting the shots when their immune response is no longer triggered by the allergens in question. Others must continue getting shots once a month to keep their reactions in check.
The majority of patients feel that this lengthy protocol is worthwhile since they can effectively treat their allergies and improve their quality of life with allergy shots. Medication may no longer be needed.
What’s Inside of an Allergy Shot?
Allergy shots contain controlled amounts of allergens that the individual patient wishes to treat. Although there is always some risk of a severe allergic reaction with allergy shot treatments, the injections are generally very safe and are given in a controlled environment. Patients must wait in the office for 30 minutes after each session to ensure that no life-threatening reactions occur.
Some side effects may come up, but are generally limited to some redness and swelling at the site of the injection in the upper arm. These symptoms should disappear quickly. Occasionally, patients may experience allergy symptoms as a side effect, such as congestion, sneezing, and rashes.
Does Immunotherapy Work For All Allergies?
Unfortunately, allergy shots are not effective for every type of allergy. They are recommended for people with allergies to substances found indoors throughout the year (pet dander, dust mites, mold, and cockroaches), stinging insect allergies, and seasonal allergies (pollen, grasses, or weeds).
Allergy shots are not effective for food allergies and avoidance is still the best management option for these patients. Chronic hives are also unresponsive to allergy shots.
How Are They Administered?
An allergy shot is a quick procedure, aside from the waiting period that is required after each session. During an immunotherapy visit, your allergist will simply inject a controlled dose of the substance causing your immune system to react into your upper arm. Once you’ve received your injection, you will need to wait in the office for half an hour to ensure your safety in case of a severe reaction.
Many people are uncomfortable with needles and feel nervous about starting allergy shots. Rest assured that your immunologist will take steps to help you feel as comfortable as possible. Over time, you are likely to become more comfortable with the process.
Allergy Shots vs. Drops
Although allergy shots are safe and effective for immunotherapy, there are some significant downsides involved with the treatment protocol. People who are fearful of needles may find the treatment process overwhelming. It can also be inconvenient to visit the office several times a week for the initial treatment phase.
In some cases, there is another option for actually treating allergies, rather than just managing them. Allergy drops (sublingual immunotherapy or SLIT), which come in tablet or liquid form, can provide a convenient and non-invasive alternative to allergy shots for some patients. Drops are better for people with a fear of needles and they can also be more approachable for treating children.
The first dose of any allergy drop treatment plan is administered in the doctor’s office. The patient is observed for 30 minutes to ensure that no severe reactions occur. After this first visit, the drops can usually be taken at home. Consistent compliance with the immunologist’s treatment plan is crucial for good results.
Allergy drops do have a few downsides. They are only FDA-approved to treat four different allergies (ragweed, Timothy grass, dust mites, and five other types of grass) and each tablet or liquid only contains one type of allergen. However, if you have a specific allergy that is covered by drops, you might find them to be a great alternative to allergy shots.
Currently, allergy drops are being explored for treating food allergies, but the effectiveness is not yet well-understood.
Are Allergy Shots Right For You?
There are definitely pros and cons to starting an allergy shot treatment plan. For people with mild reactions that only disrupt daily life on an occasional basis, it’s probably not worth the time, effort, and expense. But for those with chronic, frequent symptoms, immunotherapy can be life-changing.
Before you decide whether or not to move forward with allergy shots, you will need to speak with an immunologist or allergist about your reactions and symptoms. An allergy test is required before starting an immunotherapy regimen.
An allergy expert can consult with you and help you understand your candidacy for allergy shot treatments. If you’re not sure if the treatment is right for you, your allergist can recommend a course of action, based on the type of allergies you have and how they are affecting your life.
If you’re not ready to try allergy shots just yet, you should still consider a consultation with an immunologist. They can help you decide on a management strategy that fits into your life. If you decide that you want to pursue treatment over management in the future, they can help you create a plan to tackle your immune response.
Where You Can Get Allergy Shots
Penn Medicine Becker ENT & Allergy locations in New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania are staffed by expert immunologists with the experience and skill to help you feel better now and in the future. Allergies, even when they only cause you a stuffy nose and watery eyes, are extremely disruptive. We offer customized treatment plans that can help children and adults cope with uncomfortable reactions and allergy symptoms.
You can get allergy shots at the following convenient office locations:
Trust is important for every doctor-patient relationship. If you choose to move forward with allergy shots, you will be visiting our allergy specialists regularly and it is important for you to feel comfortable. That’s why we emphasize compassionate patient care and invite our patients to ask questions about their treatment plans. To learn more about allergy shots or to schedule an appointment, contact the Penn Medicine Becker ENT & Allergy office that is most convenient for you.