With every change of season comes the coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and congestion of allergic rhinitis.
Dealing with the allergy symptoms is a reality for many Canadians. In fact, the Canadian Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Foundation estimates that as much as 25% of Canadians suffer from allergic rhinitis. That’s one in four people coping with symptoms brought on by allergies.
So, what’s the best way to treat this condition?
You have one of two approaches to choose from when it comes to treating allergies. You can either do what most allergy sufferers do and take some kind of over-the-counter (OTC) medication or natural health product to alleviate symptoms. Or you can work with your doctor to try to address and treat the actual cause of your allergic rhinitis. Just how do you do that? By diagnosing the substance causing your allergies and receiving allergy shot treatment, also called immunotherapy.
The Difference Between Allergy Shots and OTC Medications
People who suffer from allergies have overly sensitive immune systems. In essence, when their bodies encounter an allergen, a benign substance to most people, it reacts just as it would to an invader like a virus. To fight the allergen, the immune system produces all the symptoms associated with allergic rhinitis: runny nose, itchy and watery eyes, coughing, and sneezing.
Allergy shots differ from OTC drugs in that they attempt to treat the immune system by building up the body’s immunity against the allergen. Immunotherapy works just like a regular vaccine. Each injection contains a small amount of the allergen the patient reacts to. For the first phase of the treatment, known as the build up phase, the sufferer will receive small doses of the allergen in each shot on a weekly basis. The doctor will gradually increase the dosage each visit. After this initial period, the patient will then undergo a maintenance phase. At this stage he or she receives the same dose of the allergen monthly over a longer period of time. This maintenance phase can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to complete.
OTC medications, on the other hand, just work to manage the symptoms of allergic rhinitis after the body has reacted to the allergen. They in essence treat the symptoms, not the cause.
So can allergy shots really work to cure allergic rhinitis?
The Long-Term Effects of Allergy Shots
The answer is no. Allergy shots do not cure allergic rhinitis. No cure exists for this condition, but they can be quite effective in treating allergies long-term. For those sufferers who have moderate to severe symptoms year-round, experience little relief from OTC drugs, or who dislike the side effects that come with these medications, allergy shots may be a good option.
Immunotherapy works best for patients with allergic rhinitis who react to:
Allergy shots seem to help some sufferers more than others. Immunotherapy has the best track record treating hay fever, with 90% of patients experiencing significant relief from their symptoms. In one 1999 study recorded in the New England Medical Journal, allergy shots effectively improved the symptoms of patients with tree pollen allergies for up to three years after the end of treatment.
They also have been known to be quite effective in treating allergic asthma, particularly for those individuals with allergies to insect stings. Immunotherapy has also proved successful in preventing the development of asthma in children who have allergies.
Diagnosing Your Allergies
Before your doctor can start immunotherapy treatment, he or she needs to diagnose the cause of your symptoms with a skin or blood test. While a skin test may be unpleasant and time consuming, it can effectively identify those allergens causing your symptoms.
Knowing the exact allergen you react to provides more than one benefit. Many sufferers self-diagnose and just take OTC medications when allergy symptoms act up. But they may actually incorrectly guess the allergen or allergens causing their allergies. Without knowing the exact allergen, patients can’t effectively avoid exposure or rid the allergens from their home environment.
So whether or not you choose to go ahead with immunotherapy treatment, receiving a skin or blood test will give you the knowledge to effectively manage your symptoms.
Determining If Allergy Shots Are Right For You
There is no way to guess with 100% accuracy if allergy shots will give you long-term relief. But if you suffer from allergic rhinitis, particularly hay fever, then there is a good chance you will benefit from this treatment. If you have severe allergies and have not benefitted from OTC drugs, then allergy shots will likely be worth your while. Talk to your doctor and discuss all your options to see if you are indeed a good candidate to receive immunotherapy treatment.