Allergen immunotherapy – Why and how it works

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— By Manisha Relan, MD*

Allergen immunotherapy (“AIT”) is the fancy phrase for allergy shots. What is it? Why do doctors recommend it? And how does it work? These are common questions an allergist faces every day.
Every spring and fall, people note increased allergy (“hay fever”) symptoms such as sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, and itching, particularly of the eyes, nose, ears or throat. AIT is a long-term treatment for these symptoms; it gets to the root cause of the problem whereas medications just treat the symptoms, like a band-aid. AIT can also be used to treat year-round allergy to dust mite, mold, certain animals/insects, and to bee venom.
AIT actually works like a vaccine: Your body is injected with the substances you are allergic to in very diluted concentrations every week, gradually increasing in concentration over several months (usually 6 to 12) until your body develops a tolerance (or immunity) to the allergens. Your doctor writes a prescription for the injections. Once you reach the top dose, you reach what we call maintenance levels. These are administered every 2 to 4 weeks, as per your doctor’s recommendations. AIT is typically given for 3 to 5 years. The nice thing about AIT is that it is relatively painless. Most vaccines are given in your muscle (ouch!) but AIT is a subcutaneous injection (the fatty part of the arm) so it is more of a tiny pinch.
AIT only contains what you are allergic to; this is identified by skin testing with an allergist. In children, AIT has been shown to prevent the development of asthma. No treatment is perfect but if you start AIT, you do want to give it a fair try; most doctors ask for a minimum of 1 year. It takes your body time to become allergic and so it takes time to develop a tolerance. Successful AIT results in decreased symptoms, decreased use of medications and an increased quality of life. It is a win-win!
*Dr. Manisha Relan is an allergist with Certified Allergy & Asthma Consultants, which has offices in Albany, Clifton Park, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady and Troy. Dr. Relan is board certified in Allergy and Immunology and specializes in treating children and adults with allergies and asthma. certifiedallergy.com/

 

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