Allergy Desensitization – An Evolving And Effective Treatment

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Allergy Desensitization

Allergy desensitization (which basically means “becoming more accustomed to”) is a method of treating allergies in an effort to make the person less reactive to the allergen (substance they are reacting to).  Their immune system is gradually exposed to increasing doses of the allergen in order to modify or completely stop the reaction.

This treatment is very effective for allergies to pollen, mites, animal dander, and stinging insects such as bees, hornets, yellow jackets, wasps, and fire ants. It can also be used for allergies to certain medications.

How is it Done

The desensitization process usually takes an extended time, months to as long as 5 years or more.  A maintenance dose may be required.  The technique involves the administration of gradually increasing amounts of an allergic material over a period of time helps the body to become ‘immune’ to the very thing it is allergic to.  

Your body becomes tolerant of the allergen thus reducing the symptoms you experience and your need for medications.  You may recognize  this treatment when referred to as “allergy shots.”

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Most people do not experience problems from allergy shots, but because they contain substances that you are allergic to, reactions are possible.  Side effects include the possibility of a local reaction at the site of injection.  Usually it involves redness, mild swelling, or irritation.   The reaction would typically begin within a few hours and clear up fairly quickly. 

Systemic (body-wide) reactions are much less common, but more serious.  You could develop sneezing and nasal congestion or hives.  Throat swelling, wheezing, or chest tightness is starting to border on an anaphylactic reaction and should be brought to your healthcare provider’s attention quickly.  Anaphylaxis is rare but not unheard of with allergy desensitization shots.

A new method is being used by some physicians.  It is called rapid desensitization, with several months of exposure completed in a single day.  A response is seen almost immediately in certain patients.  You should not attempt this by yourself without medical supervision.  It is still somewhat experimental and cannot be done with all allergies. 

It has been shown to work well for medications in situations where the patient needs the drug they are allergic to for treatment of severe infections.

Sublingual Immunotherapy

Another alternative is sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT), “allergy drops.”  Instead of shots of the allergen the treatment is by drops (or a small tablet) that are placed under your tongue and absorbed by the oral (mouth) mucosa.  Whereas allergy shots are given once or twice a day the allergy drops are usually taken two to three times a day. 

They taste sweet and are quick and easy to take.  This method can work best for very young children who would do poorly with injections.  There is mounting evidence that treating allergies (eg to dust mites or cat dander) early in life can decrease the risk of developing asthma later.  Atopic dermatitis and recurrent otitis media may also benefit from sublingual allergy desensitization.  In the case of food allergens, sublingual therapy may be the only viable option for treatment.  SLIT can be used to treat multiple allergies together at once.

Peanut allergies are felt to be a very important allergen to attempt desensitization for.  You probably will not be able to go back to eating peanuts and peanut butter, but you can make yourself much safer in a world that can seem full of these nuts. 

Peanuts pop up in many different places.  Even when you are extremely careful you may still become exposed to them, or a compound made from peanuts.  Successful peanut allergy desensitization can make you tolerant to small amounts, which will help you avoid surprise reactions.  It could be what will stand between you and an anaphylactic reaction.  You may need to continue the treatment indefinitely, but the peace of mind it can bring is likely worth the trouble.

Allergy desensitization is done with the help of a specialist.  It is not something you can do on your own.  It is highly effective and very helpful for those with allergies.

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