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Imunotherapy: What You Need To Know

Will I Benefit From Immunotherapy?

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Updated September 08, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Immunotherapy is the medical term your doctor uses for what you may refer to as "allergy shots." When your immune system overreacts to allergens such as pollen, pet dander, and dust mites, you may benefit from immunotherapy. By making your body less sensitive to your allergic asthma triggers, you may be able to decrease some of your chronic asthma symptoms, such as:

Immunotherapy exposes you to small amounts of your triggering allergen over time in a process called desensitization. In addition to the treatment of asthma, immunotherapy can also be used to treat allergies, atopic dermatitis, and hay fever.

How Immunotherapy Works

In some ways, immunotherapy is like a vaccine -- you get an injection that gives you protection from asthma. With immunotherapy, your doctor injects tiny amounts of an allergen subcutaneously or under your skin. This is usually done once or twice per week, and the amount of allergen is gradually increased. Slowly, your body becomes less sensitive to the allergen, which may result in decreased or total resolution to the asthma symptoms that normally occur when you are exposed to the particular allergen. In short, allergy shots help you become tolerant of the allergens that cause your asthma symptoms. Immunotherapy can stop or significantly lessen the allergic reactions you experience to certain triggers, such as pollen, dander, and dust mites.

Who Benefits From Immunotherapy?

In general, immunotherapy works best for patients with allergic asthma. If you have difficult to control symptoms, medications do not work well for you, or you need multiple medications and still don't have great asthma control, you might consider immunotherapy. Additionally, immunotherapy is sometimes used in patients who do not want to take regular medication.

Patients with a clear relationship between their exposure to an allergen and development of symptoms will gain the most benefit. Immunotherapy can also be used in the treatment of allergic rhinitis or to prevent allergies from stinging insects. Before embarking on immunotherapy as a treatment, you need to consider the following:

  • Length of allergy season -- If really short, immunotherapy may not be worth it. Generally, immunotherapy is considered for patients who have symptoms for a significant part of the year.

  • Other avoidance techniques -- Are there other measures (e.g. removing a pet from the bedroom) that might be effective? Immunotherapy is like any other medication -- there can be significant side effects. Make sure you have done everything you can to identify and avoid your asthma triggers before committing to immunotherapy.

  • Time -- Immunotherapy is a significant time commitment and will involve you making frequent trips to your doctor.

  • Cost -- Immunotherapy is expensive, and you will need to check with your insurance to ensure you are covered.

How Effective Is Immunotherapy?

Studies have demonstrated improvement in asthma symptoms and bronchial hyperresponsiveness with immunotherapy when there are allergies to grass, cats, house-dust mites, and ragweed. However, few asthma patients have allergies only to one substance, and few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of immunotherapy for multiple allergens. The multiple allergen mixes, however, are the most common immunotherapy used by doctors in practice.

It is also not clear if immunotherapy is better than treatment with inhaled steroids. It can take up to 6 months to a year before you notice any improvement in your asthma symptoms after starting immunotherapy.

Side Effects of Immunotherapy

Because immunotherapy is exposing you to allergens which cause you to have asthma symptoms, there is a chance that your asthma might get worse and you might have an asthma attack after the immunotherapy injection. Your doctor will likely require you to stay in the office for a period of time after your immunotherapy injection to make sure your breathing is okay. If you already have severe asthma, you are more likely to experience a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. If you experience a sensation of your throat closing, hives on the skin, nausea, or dizziness, these could be symptoms of anaphylaxis. Most of these severe symptoms would occur within 30 minutes of receiving an injection.

Additionally, you may experience a local reaction at the site of the injection that can be managed with ice and over-the-counter pain medications.

How Long Will I Need Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy will usually last for 3-5 years.

Learn More About Your Asthma

Share your Allergy Knowledge & Experience

Sources:

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Accessed June18, 2011 Tips to Remember: Allergy Shots

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed: September 3, 2011. Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma

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