What is Immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy, also known as biological therapy, is a medical intervention that uses the body’s immune response to treat a disease. It can work by either activating or suppressing the immune system’s response, and it is used to treat multiple conditions, including cancer and allergies.
In the context of allergies, immunotherapy works to reduce the body’s sensitivity to an allergen.
Medications such as antihistamines address symptoms alone, whereas immunotherapy gets to the root cause. Immunotherapy treatment for allergies can be administered orally, sublingually, or via an injection.
These shots are given to a patient on a regular basis over a long period of time, slowly working on the body’s immune response to reduce sensitivity.
HOW IMMUNOTHERAPY WORKS
This stage takes anywhere from 3 to 6 months generally and involves getting the patient safely to the effective dose. Once reached, the process moves into the maintenance stage.
During this stage, the patient takes the effective dose on an ongoing basis. This stage can last for an undesignated amount of time until a patient starts to experience prolonged relief.
Relief From Symptoms
After an initial improvement in symptoms, you may not notice additional improvement for several months. If successful, you should see long-term benefits and a reduction in symptoms.
Immunotherapy Side Effects
As with any medical procedure, immunotherapy for allergies can come with side effects. The primary side effects typically involve experiencing allergy symptoms. In very rare cases, a patient could experience anaphylaxis. There are no known long-term side effects of immunotherapy.
Types of Immunotherapy
Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy. They work by exposing the body in stages to an allergen so that the body ‘learns’ not to react to that trigger. The principle is similar to a vaccine, which exposes the body to a small amount of a virus and then allows the body to build its immune response.
Allergy shots are administered by a doctor or allergist regularly, typically once or twice a week, during the build-up stage and then less frequently during a maintenance period.
Allergy shots work well on allergies triggered by inhaled allergens, such as pollen allergies, dust allergies, and pet dander allergies. Allergy shots can also work well in limiting the body’s response to a stinging insect allergy. They are typically not used to treat food allergies.
Sublingual immunotherapy follows the same principles as OIT, but is used more commonly to address allergic rhinitis or asthma related to environmental allergens such as dust mites and ragweed. Studies are ongoing as to its effectiveness with food allergies.
It involves the administration of drops or FDA-approved allergen extract tablets sublingually, or under the tongue. These drops or tablets contain very small amounts of an allergen, allowing the body to adjust to exposure to the allergen over time.
A significant advantage of sublingual immunotherapy is that the patient does not need to undergo a series of shots. It can take time, however. Also, patients typically administer the doses at home without direct medical supervision. As such, patients will need to review and adhere to advice from their allergist on how to manage adverse reactions.
Oral immunotherapy, or OIT, involves the slow and systematic exposure of a patient to a food allergen under medical supervision. The patient ingests amounts of the allergen at first that are far lower than what would typically trigger an allergic reaction. Over time, the dose is increased in the medical setting; the patient also takes a daily dose at home.
OIT offers a number of advantages to those with allergies to common foods, such as peanuts or tree nuts, that can be difficult to avoid. It can take time, however, and requires ongoing adherence to maintenance protocols by the patient.
Patients can reach the maintenance stage of oral immunotherapy in four to six months typically. While OIT can potentially decrease the risk of a severe or fatal allergic reaction in a patient, it does require ongoing maintenance for the duration of the patient’s life.
Conditions Immunotherapy Can Treat
Allergic rhinitis is the diagnosis given to a collection of respiratory systems that result from exposure to an allergen.learn more
Food allergies trigger an immune response and can be fatal, while food intolerance is often less serious.learn more
Dust Mite Allergies
Dust mites are microscopic insects that thrive in warm, humid environments and often trigger an allergic reaction.learn more
*Note: Immunotherapy can also help to treat allergies to ragweed and cancer. Research is ongoing into how effective immunotherapy can be on autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and MS.
Does Immunotherapy Work For Allergies?
Yes, Immunotherapy for allergies can produce long-term results. It is an ideal choice, too, for patients with severe allergies or patients who are unable to avoid exposure to an allergen. Patients should note, however, that some may respond more positively than others to this intervention.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Success Rate of Immunotherapy?
Success rates for immunotherapy can vary from patient to patient and condition to condition. According to some research, immunotherapies for ragweed allergies have resulted in success rates as high as 85 percent.
Who Qualifies for Immunotherapy?
Any patient over the age of 5 can be a good candidate for allergy immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is typically not used in younger patients since they are not able to communicate effectively about symptoms or side effects.
How Long Does Immunotherapy Stay in Your System?
Results vary from patient to patient. Many patients see long-term benefits from allergy immunotherapy. Some experience relapses after cessation of the immunotherapy maintenance period.
Signs Immunotherapy Is Working
The main sign that immunotherapy is working is a reduction in allergy symptoms when exposed to an allergen.
Is Immunotherapy Painful?
Generally speaking, no, not at all. Typically, patients should see a reduction in allergy symptoms and less pain and discomfort.