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Put Spring Pollen in its Place

Shots now more effective, less painful way to fight allergies, experts say

SATURDAY, March 16, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The bad news is your allergies are about to strike, as spring and all its pollens arrive with a gentle vengeance.

The good news is allergy shots are becoming a more effective, less painful way to tackle those itchy eyes and runny noses, experts say.

Allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, decrease your sensitivity to allergens by introducing you slowly to increasingly larger doses of the substance to which you're allergic.

The vaccines are selected to match your allergies. For example, if you're allergic to insect stings, you get a vaccine derived from insect venom. Other vaccines may be derived from pollens, mold spores, animal dander or dust mites.

Allergy shots have improved in a number of ways over the years, says Dr. Hendrick Nolte, associate professor of internal medicine and pulmonology at Bispebjerg University Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The vaccines themselves are better standardized, which improves their quality and effectiveness. Also, there are now guidelines for prescribing and administering allergy shots, experts say.

Nolte says patients first receive between six and eight weekly shots, and then receive one injection a month for about three years. He says allergy shots are effective for about 80 percent of people with hay fever and 50 percent to 60 percent of people with asthma.

He notes that immunotherapy cures some patients of their allergies.

"All the other treatments for asthma and allergy involve medications or trying to avoid the trigger. They don't change the immune status. Immunotherapy does change the immune status, so there are patients who will actually be cured. It goes right to the root of the problem," Nolte says.

The problem is that too many patients don't have immunotherapy because they don't realize they suffer from allergies or their doctors fail to diagnose them.

"A lot of patients are not being diagnosed, and they treat themselves with over-the-counter medication -- for example, antihistamine for hay fever for a few years. So, the disease progresses and it's much more severe by the time they finally see their doctor. It makes it much more difficult to actually cure the disease," Nolte says.

One drawback to allergy shots is the ordeal for people who hate needles. Scientists are currently trying to create nasal sprays and pills that can deliver vaccines in a less painful way.

However, that research has yet to produce an alternative to injections that's proven effective or safe in a clinical setting, says Dr. Jonathan A. Bernstein, an associate professor of medicine in the immunology and allergy division at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine.

Allergy shots aren't for everyone.

For example, it's not necessarily worthwhile if you suffer from hay fever for just six weeks each year. However, you might consider immunotherapy if you suffer allergies during all seasons.

Immunotherapy can be especially valuable for children who are extremely allergic. Allergies are a risk factor for asthma. So allergy shots can actually prevent the development of asthma in some children, Bernstein says.

What to Do: For more information about immunotherapy, go to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology or the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

SOURCES: Interviews with Hendrick Nolte, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor, internal medicine and pulmonology, Bispebjerg University Hospital, Copenhagen, Denmark; Jonathan A. Bernstein, M.D., associate professor, medicine, immunology and allergy division, department of internal medicine, College of Medicine, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati
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