MONDAY, March 4, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- For some people, a sting from the ubiquitous fire ant can provoke potentially severe reactions, but a new study finds that only one-third of people with such allergies get shots that can ease the danger.
"Patients are fearful of the injections, and often feel that the time investment will never pay off in the long run," said one expert, Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Allergy shots to protect against fire ant stings are typically given monthly to provide the best protection. This treatment has been shown to prevent allergy progression and to reduce the risk of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be deadly.
However, "the time commitment is significant and typically involves monthly injections over a 3- to 5-year period," said Glatter, who was not involved in the new study.
So, despite the potential benefit, the new study found that only 35 percent of patients with fire ant allergies continued to get allergy shots after one year. Inconvenience and fear were among the reasons why they stopped getting the treatment.
The findings were published in the March issue of the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
"Immunotherapy is proven to be safe and efficient at treating allergic diseases," study lead author Dr. Shayne Stokes, chief of allergy and immunology at Luke AFB in Arizona, said in a news release from the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). "It can also result in health care savings of 33 to 41 percent."
Fire ants are common throughout the southeastern United States. People who have had an allergic reaction to a fire ant sting in the past have a 60 percent chance of experiencing a similar or more severe reaction if stung again, according to the ACAAI.
Symptoms of a fire ant allergy can include: hives, itching and swelling in areas other than the sting site; abdominal cramping, intense nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing; hoarse voice or swelling of the tongue or throat, or difficulty swallowing; anaphylaxis, which can include dizziness, a sharp drop in blood pressure or cardiac arrest.
"The reality is that if allergy shots for fire ant stings were utilized more often, patients would have milder reactions if a sting occurred -- and thus a lower chance or need for a visit to an emergency department," Glatter said. "The subsequent risk for anaphylaxis would also be significantly reduced. Overall, the need for other 'rescue medications' to treat the allergic reactions from the fire ants -- including steroids and epinephrine -- may potentially be reduced as well."
People who have an allergic reaction should seek immediate medical help and follow up with an allergist, the ACAAI said.
Glatter said that "patients with asthma, sleep apnea, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and other chronic lung diseases may be at added risk for airway compromise should a subsequent reaction occur, and should be considered for [the allergy shots]."
Two million Americans are allergic to insect stings, an allergy that sends more than 500,000 people to hospital emergency rooms each year.
Mississippi State University has more about fire ants.