July 7, 2022
4 min. read

Immunotherapy Allergy Shots—How Effective Are They?

Medly

Good to Know:

  • Allergy shots, also called immunotherapy, work for several different types of allergens—including seasonal allergies, allergies to insect stings or bites, and allergies to dust mites or pet dander.
  • Immunotherapy involves receiving a small dose of the allergen, usually through an injection.  
  • Allergy immunotherapy can still cause an allergic reaction since your immune system is still learning how to react to an allergen. If you experience severe symptoms while undergoing treatment, tell your healthcare provider.

If you’ve struggled with allergy symptoms for several years—whether it be bug bites, dust mites, or seasonal allergies—and over-the-counter medications don’t seem to work anymore, it might be time to look into immunotherapy. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, are an effective way to alleviate your symptoms, and healthcare providers will often recommend them if other allergy medications haven’t been effective.

Fast Facts: Allergy shots are a safe treatment for kids and adults, with patients as young as 5 years old.

 

Do allergy shots work?

In short, yes. Allergy immunotherapy works in a way similar to vaccines. By regularly exposing your immune system to the allergen, your body becomes desensitized to it. Your immune system creates antibodies to the allergen, and you don’t have to worry about your symptoms anymore.

Fast Facts: Some patients with asthma in addition to allergies find that immunotherapy helps prevent asthma attacks as well as allergic reactions.

Allergy shots work for the following types of allergies:

  • Dust mites
  • Animal dander or pet dander
  • Insect allergies, such as bug bites or stings
  • Mold
  • Pollen from grass or trees
  • Ragweed
  • Seasonal allergies or hay fever

Allergy shots aren’t effective for food allergies yet, but some clinical studies are being conducted. If you’re interested in pursuing immunotherapy treatment options for food allergies, talk to your allergist or healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe for you.

Did You Know? The FDA recently approved a type of immunotherapy called sublingual immunotherapy, or SLIT. This allergy treatment is given as an oral medication instead of using allergy injections. It’s been proven effective for ragweed, grass, and dust mites.

What happens during immunotherapy?

Allergy immunotherapy happens in two stages: the build-up phase and the maintenance phase.

During the build-up phase, you’ll receive allergy shots approximately once a week. By receiving a small dose of the allergen, your immune system will build up a tolerance for it. Gradually, as your tolerance increases, your healthcare provider or allergist will increase the dosage of your allergy shot. This phase will last about 3 to 6 months. 

During the maintenance phase, you’ll receive shots less frequently because your immune system has created antibodies to the allergen. You’ll get a maintenance dose, or the highest dose of the allergen while still remaining safe and avoiding an allergic reaction, approximately once a month. The maintenance stage usually lasts 3 to 5 years.

What if I have an allergic reaction?

You might have a small reaction at the injection site, such as redness, swelling, or irritation. However, these typically go away within a few hours. If you do have a systemic reaction—such as hives, nasal congestion, or wheezing—your allergist or healthcare provider will know how to treat you. It’s also worth noting that systemic reactions are relatively rare. Most people are able to receive allergy shots with no issues.

In very rare but severe cases, you may have a life-threatening severe reaction called anaphylaxis. This can cause trouble breathing and low blood pressure (hypotension). If this happens, your doctor will ensure you’ll receive fast treatment. This is also why allergy shots are given on a schedule: you’ll be less likely to have a severe reaction if you get an allergy shot every week or month.

Fast Facts: After each allergy shot, you’ll stay at your doctor’s office for about 30 minutes. This ensures you don’t have an allergic reaction after treatment, or if you do, it allows you to get quick treatment.

How will I know when it’s working?

Allergy shots help alleviate allergy symptoms in your nose and eyes, ears, and lungs. Your allergy symptoms may lessen or, after prolonged treatment, may go away entirely.

Unfortunately, allergy shots take some patience. It can take several months before you notice a major difference in allergy symptoms, and the Mayo Clinic reports that most patients see a difference after receiving allergy shots for over a year. But after 3 to 5 years in the maintenance phase, you may be able to stop getting allergy shots. Better yet, you may have symptom relief that lasts at least 7 years. It might take some waiting, but it will be worth it in the end.

Sources

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