Allergy Desensitization: Does It Work?
Allergies can dramatically affect your quality of life, posing substantial limits on your environment, diet, and lifestyle. While medication is effective in managing your allergy symptoms, it is also possible to treat your allergy at its source.
Allergy desensitization, known as allergen immunotherapy, aims to confront the causes – not just the symptoms – of allergic conditions. Immunotherapy is most commonly administered in the form of allergy shots, which have proven an effective treatment for respiratory allergies and insect bites.
Here’s an overview of immunotherapy treatments, how they work, and the effectiveness of desensitization on different types of allergies.
What Causes an Allergy?
Allergic reactions are the result of a hypersensitivity in the immune system to an otherwise harmless substance: the allergen. This occurs when the immune system mistakenly develops antibodies in response to its first exposure to an allergen, and then continues deploying these antibodies whenever the allergen enters the body from thereon. The antibodies attached to the allergen trigger a chain reaction in which histamine is released, causing the usual allergic symptoms: itching, swelling, inflammation, hives, coughing, and even anaphylaxis.
How Desensitization Works
The objective of immunotherapy is to gradually build the body’s tolerance to an allergen in order to reduce the overproduction of immunoglobulin E, which plays an essential role in hypersensitivity. The intent is to steer the body away from humoral immunity – which involves the release of antibodies to attack the allergen – and towards cell immunity. To put it simply, building a careful resistance to an allergen should reduce the immune system’s likelihood to overreact to a benign substance.
Of course, the first step is thorough and extensive allergy testing conducted by your doctor. Once the specific allergen is accurately identified, immunotherapy can begin. Immunotherapy should only be attempted by a trained medical professional in a controlled environment where you can receive immediate medical attention in case of anaphylaxis.
Types of Allergen Immunotherapy
Like the namesake suggests, allergy shots involve injecting controlled doses of the allergen into the body, so that your body can gradually build tolerance to the allergen. The mechanism works very similarly to that of a vaccine.
Allergy shots are a long-term treatment with lasting results, even after treatment has ended. The treatment can be administered to both children and adults, although caution is warned for children under the age of five. This is primarily due to the fact that young children may struggle with cooperating with the procedure, and that they are not fully able to articulate or understand any adverse side effects they are suffering.
Allergy shots are used to treat respiratory allergies, with great success. The procedure has proven successful in improving cases of allergic rhinitis, allergic asthma, and allergic conjunctivitis. It is also an effective treatment against insect allergies. However, the evidence remains inconclusive on whether it is effective against food allergies.
The treatment consists of two phases:
- The build-up phase: This initial phase seeks to gradually build immunity to the allergen. Shots with carefully controlled doses of the allergen are injected once or twice a week. The dosages are increased incrementally for about three to six months, until your body has built a sufficient tolerance to the allergen.
- The maintenance phase: Maintenance can begin once your body has built adequate immunity, after an effective dosage of the allergen has been reached. The objective is to maintain this immunity through continuing injections of this dosage, but over longer periods of time between treatments. Allergy shots during the maintenance phase are usually administered every two to four weeks, but your doctor will determine what length of time is best for your needs.
Allergy drops perform through the same mechanism as allergy shots, building gradual immunity like a vaccine, but through different delivery.
Medically known as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT), allergy drops involve controlled doses of the allergen placed under the tongue, instead of through an injection. This is an ideal option for children, who often find injections painful and traumatizing. The allergen drops are absorbed through the mucus membranes underneath the tongue, affecting the dendritic cells. Studies have shown that this is a more pleasant and effective method for lasting desensitization.
Is Allergy Desensitization Effective?
The short answer is yes – allergen immunotherapy has proven extremely effective as a long term allergy treatment with lasting results.
Research has shown that allergen immunotherapy is safe and effective in building immunity to environmental allergens, thus improving the conditions of allergic asthma, allergic rhinitis, and allergic conjunctivitis. It has also proven beneficial in building tolerance against insect stings. Overall, evidence has shown that immunotherapy is the most effective treatment against the sources of respiratory allergies, versus the symptoms. The effects are also long lasting even after treatment has ended, and only require occasional maintenance once the initial immunity is established.
However, studies on allergen immunotherapy’s effects on food allergies have come up inconclusive. Therefore, the best defense against food allergies are simply to avoid exposure to the allergen altogether.
Allergy Treatment with Dr. Shukla
For long lasting allergy relief, schedule a consultation with Dr. Mayank Shukla at the Asthma Allergy Sleep Center of New York today. Dr. Shukla will perform thorough and comprehensive allergy tests in order to develop a specialized treatment plan to fit your needs.