Does allergy immunotherapy actually work for allergies?

Allergies are no fun. They impact millions of Americans and millions more worldwide, causing an assortment of pesky symptoms that cause discomfort and get in the way. If you’re one of the many who suffers from an allergy, whether it’s seasonal, food-related, or something else, you may have heard of allergy immunotherapy

This powerful treatment is unlike traditional allergy treatments, such as decongestants, antihistamines, and corticosteroids. Unlike those treatments, it focuses on the allergy, not the symptoms. But does it actually work for allergies? In this blog, we’ll explore allergies, allergy immunotherapy, and whether this treatment actually works. 

A basic overview of allergies: in a nutshell

Before we dive headfirst into the fascinating science behind allergy immunotherapy, we need to start with a foundational understanding of allergies. In simple terms, an allergy is your body’s reaction to a foreign substance. 

This foreign substance, called an allergen, can take many forms, from bee venom and pollen to cat and dog dander. The allergen is rarely harmful, but your immune system isn’t able to recognize it as harmless. 

So, when your body encounters that particular allergen, it kickstarts a reaction in an effort to protect you. Your antibodies, blood proteins that counteract a specific antigen, spring into action, communicating with cells that release specific chemicals. 

When these chemicals are released inside your body, they tell your immune system to trigger the symptoms we know as allergies. These symptoms can range in severity from an itchy nose to difficulty breathing. Sometimes, the reaction can even progress to anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction that requires immediate medical attention.  

What is allergy immunotherapy?

Allergy immunotherapy (AIT) is a treatment that helps desensitize your body to an allergen, such as bee venom or northern pasture grasses. There are two categories of allergy immunotherapy: sublingual and subcutaneous. 

The first, sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT), is administered under the tongue via tablets or drops. This option is popular for children, as it doesn’t involve frequent doctor visits or injections. 

The second, subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT), is administered under the skin via an injection. It’s commonly known as allergy shots and is the most popular type of AIT. 

How AIT works

Allergy immunotherapy helps achieve an allergen-specific tolerance by repeatedly exposing your body to that allergen. The shots, drops, or tablets contain small, incrementally increasing doses of the allergen. 

The repeated exposure helps reduce the production of the “blocking” antibodies that cause the reaction, slowly desensitizing your body to the allergen. Over time, you may find that you can be exposed to that allergen with little to no reaction. 

Of course, everyone is different, so the results may look different for each person. Most people begin to notice those results within a few months to a year of starting the treatment, but the best results usually appear in years two and three. 

Is allergy immunotherapy effective in treating allergies?

Allergy immunotherapy is highly effective in treating various types of allergies. The treatment has been around for over a century, and in that time, researchers have conducted countless trials and studies that demonstrate its remarkable efficacy. 

For example, one European study compared AIT-treated individuals to a control group, examining AIT, allergic rhinitis, and asthma prescriptions. It found that the AIT-treated group had significantly lower allergic rhinitis and asthma prescriptions than the control group. Furthermore, it found that the AIT-treated group had a higher chance of stepping down asthma treatment than the control group. 

Another study evaluated AIT’s long-term effects on allergic rhinitis, finding that both sublingual and subcutaneous immunotherapy are effective in treating it. AIT offered clinical benefits and immunological changes consistent with an allergen-specific tolerance. 

An assortment of research and clinical trials examined the efficacy of repeated subcutaneous injections for achieving an allergen-specific tolerance. They found that AIT is highly effective in achieving such a result that persists even beyond discontinuation of the treatment. 

These are just a few of the many studies and trials published online and in various books. The research is plentiful, so if you want to learn more about AIT, you’ll have no shortage of material. 

Wrapping up

Allergy immunotherapy offers promising results for those who commit the time to embark on an AIT journey. Whether you’re suffering from an allergy to pet dander or an allergy to pollen, AIT can be a powerful tool in combatting those pesky symptoms and giving you the freedom to enjoy experiences you previously couldn’t. 

Of course, like any healthcare decision, it’s important to talk to your doctor first. They’ll consider your medical history and current allergies to help you determine if AIT is right for you. 

Also read: our article on 'correcting' the immune response by consultant immunologist Dr Raul Scott Pereira.

Any substance that provokes an allergic reaction Full medical glossary
A runny nose (rhinitis) due to an allergic response Full medical glossary
Various conditions caused by exaggerated reactions of the immune system (hypersensitivity reactions) to a variety of substances. Full medical glossary
Special proteins in the blood that are produced in response to a specific antigen and play a key role in immunity and allergy. Full medical glossary
A substance that prompts the immune system to fight infection with antibodies. Full medical glossary
A drug that blocks the action of histamine in the body; these are used to treat conditions such as hay fever. Full medical glossary
A respiratory disease featuring attacks of breathlessness and wheezing due to inflammation and narrowing of the upper airways. There is often an allergic component. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
A group of hormones that are produced by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. Full medical glossary
A medication that helps to relieve congestion in the nose. Full medical glossary
The organs specialised to fight infection. Full medical glossary
Relating to the structure and function of the immune system, the organs in the body that are specialised to fight infection. Full medical glossary
A treatment that modifies the immune response for the prevention or treatment of disease. Full medical glossary
Compounds that form the structure of muscles and other tissues in the body, as well as comprising enzymes and hormones. Full medical glossary
The medical term for a runny nose, due to inflammation and mucus secretion in the nasal lining Full medical glossary
A tube placed inside a tubular structure in the body, to keep it patent, that is, open. Full medical glossary
Compounds with a common basic structure, which occur naturally in the body. The term may also refer to man-made drugs administered because they act like hormones. Full medical glossary