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.
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.
Types of Immunotherapy
AllerVie offers two main types of immunotherapy for allergies: oral immunotherapy and sublingual immunotherapy. These interventions provide a viable alternative to allergy shots.
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.
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.
How Immunotherapy Works
Immunotherapy works in two main stages: a build-up stage and a maintenance stage. During the build-up stage, which can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months generally, involves getting the patient safely to the effective dose.
Once an effective dose is reached, the process moves into the maintenance stage. During this stage of immunotherapy, the patient takes the effective dose on an ongoing basis.
After an initial improvement in symptoms during the build-up stage, a patient may not notice improvement during the maintenance stage for several months. If the process is successful, however, a patient should see long-term benefits and a reduction in allergy 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.
Medical Conditions Immunotherapy Can Treat
Immunotherapy can treat a wide range of medical conditions, in addition to allergies, including different types of Immunodeficiencies and disorders related to the immune system. Disorders that may be treated by immunotherapy include:
- Food allergies
- Dust allergies
Research is ongoing into how effective immunotherapy can be on autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and MS, as well.
How to Know It’s Time to Try Immunotherapy
When is the right time to try allergy immunotherapy? There are several signs you can look for that can help you determine whether the time is right:
- Allergy medication is no longer effective
- Side effects from allergy medication is interfering with quality of life
- Allergy symptoms are exacerbating a comorbid condition (e.g., asthma)
- Difficulty avoiding allergens
Immunotherapy is also a viable option for patients who have a fear of needles or who do not want to receive shots once or twice a week. If you have questions about allergy immunotherapy, discuss your options with an allergist right away.View our Providers
FAQs about Immunotherapy
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.
Immunotherapy vs Allergy Shots
Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy and built on the same principles as oral and sublingual immunotherapies. Allergy shots, however, are ineffective in treating food allergies, while oral immunotherapy provides a more than viable alternative.