Bradley Chipps, M.D.
President, American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
You may have heard about immunotherapy as a treatment for cancer. However, immunotherapy has also been used to battle allergies and asthma for more than 100 years by introducing low-level exposure. Immunotherapy for allergies helps to modify the immune system and “turn off” allergies.
Immunotherapy is most commonly used as allergy shots; however, allergy tablets have also been introduced in the last few years. With allergy shots, your allergist creates a personalized formula that contains virtually all the things to which you can be allergic. Trees, grasses, weeds, pets, molds, dust and insect venom are available for injection and are given in your allergist’s office. After the injection, you then wait 30 minutes so you can be checked for allergic reactions, which are rare.
The doctor will gradually increase the amounts of your allergen; most allergy shot treatments last between three and five years. The small increases over time in the allergen cause your immune system to become less sensitive to it. The built-up tolerance reduces the symptoms of allergy when you encounter the allergen. Immunotherapy also reduces the inflammation that comes with reactions to hay fever and asthma.
Allergy tablets, which dissolve under the tongue, are currently only available for ragweed, dust mite and northern pasture grasses such as timothy. For grass and ragweed allergies, you typically take the tablet before and during the allergy season. For dust mite, you take the tablet year-round. The length of your treatment is based on which tablets you are taking and input from your allergist.
You may also have heard of allergy drops, which are also placed under the tongue. Although allergy drops are offered as an alternative to shots and tablets, they are not currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
If you think immunotherapy might be right for you, talk to your allergist.