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Immunotherapy Treatment for Allergies

April 23, 2019

Fall's seasonal activities are around the corner. Youth soccer and football games, hayrides and pumpkin patches may sound like fun, but for seasonal allergy sufferers, just thinking about these outdoor events is enough to make them itch.

Over-the-counter medications help some people keep their symptoms in check. But for others, daily medicine isn't enough.

Helping the body forget

Selina Gierer, DO, allergy specialist at The University of Kansas Health System, says immunotherapy is another option for treating allergy and asthma symptoms. Commonly known as allergy shots, immunotherapy might be right if you're:

  • Already taking allergy medicine and still aren't feeling well
  • Seeing unwanted side effects from allergy medication
  • Wanting to manage allergy symptoms without taking a tablet or pill each day

"With immunotherapy, a patient is given a shot of what they're allergic to," says Dr. Gierer. "It sounds counterintuitive, but we want the patient's immune system to stop seeing that substance as an allergen. You might say we're trying to make their body 'forget' that it's a trigger."

A personalized formula with a small allergen dose is injected each week until the shots reach a maintenance level. At this point, the body hopefully stops its typical allergic response that may cause symptoms like itchy and watery eyes, hives, sneezing, and for asthmatics, problems breathing. This is because the immune system can now tolerate the allergen exposure.

Or, as Dr. Gierer says, the body has forgotten it's allergic to the allergen the patient is sensitive to.

The closest thing to a cure

The thought of getting allergy shots each week may not be appealing. But Dr. Gierer says immunotherapy does something allergy medicines can't do – provide long-term relief.

"Immunotherapy is the only real chance we have for potentially curing patients' allergies," she says.

Patients should be prepared, though, because the long-term results take time.

"With weekly shots, it can take 6 months or longer to reach a maintenance level on the allergy shots. After that, patients typically get weekly to monthly injections for anywhere from 3-5 years," Dr. Gierer says. "Many allergy sufferers then see complete or near-complete symptom relief – even after completing a course of allergy shots."

Quick access to care

Since immunotherapy injects a patient with what they're allergic to, there is risk of reaction. Dr. Gierer monitors patients after each shot to make sure the dose is tolerated.

"Most allergic reactions happen within the first half hour of receiving a shot. We observe patients for 30 minutes after each dose to make sure their body tolerates it. Our practice also has the benefit of being part of The University of Kansas Health System. So if a patient should react, we have quick access to emergency care."

In fact, Dr. Gierer says even though her focus is on allergies and immunology, her team often works with other specialists across the health system to meet a patient’s unique care needs.

"The University of Kansas Health System has experts in nearly every field. This means we can access specialists across the medical center to care for and treat patients with a variety of immune deficiencies and allergies," she says. "This multidisciplinary approach is a helpful and time saving feature within the health system."

Winning the allergy season

Fall is a prime time of year for outdoor youth sports. Dr. Gierer says there are a few ways parents can prepare kids for a winning season. First, if they're unsure, blood work or a skin test can reveal if their child has allergies.

Second, parents with children taking medicine to control allergies or asthma should schedule a checkup with their child’s physician. Dr. Gierer and other pediatric allergy experts at The University of Kansas Health System can determine if a child's medication is the right treatment for preventing fall allergy symptoms.

Finally, Dr. Gierer advises parents talk with their child's doctor about whether allergy shots might be a long-term solution for their child.

Minimize allergen exposure in your house

  • Pollen: Keep windows closed and the air conditioner on, shower and wash your hair nightly and use a HEPA filter in the furnace.
  • Mold: Dry wet areas in your home and keep potted plants outside.
  • Dust mites: Wash bedding in hot water every week or two, freeze or wash stuffed toys regularly, keep clothes in the closet with the door closed and use an allergy cover for mattresses and pillows.
  • Pets: Keep pets outside and out of bedrooms, wash pets in warm water each week and if necessary, find new loving homes for pets.
  • Cockroaches: Exterminate your home and thoroughly vacuum, seal all cracks and don’t store paper bags, newspapers or cardboard boxes.
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