by Johnson Dellosa, MD
Cowboys football, barbecue brisket and Blue Bell ice cream (coming back soon, we hope). These are just three of the countless reasons to love living in the Lone Star State. Unfortunately, many also know only too well the unpleasant realities of having allergies in this part of the country. Especially now, at the start of Fall, when the first break in the heat is accompanied by ragweed, cedar elm and grass pollen.
More than simply a nuisance, allergy symptoms like sneezing, congestion, itchy, watery eyes, and nose and throat irritation can become a barrier to enjoying the season and the outdoors. Our moderate climate makes it difficult to get away from pollen-producing plants that live in Texas.
Some people can control allergy symptoms by avoiding triggers and taking over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants when symptoms flare up. When that doesn’t work, prescription medication or a nasal spray might allow them to enjoy the outdoors again. For others, one foot outside is all it takes to cause a symptom flare-up.
When all else fails, allergy injections (immunotherapy) are an effective way to begin immunizing against allergy triggers. Working much like a vaccine, immunotherapy starts with a process of gradually exposing a person to more of the allergens which cause a reaction. Over time, a tolerance is built up, greatly lessening allergy symptoms.
Before beginning allergy shots, you must have skin testing to find out which allergens are triggers for you. Common allergens include grass, weed or tree pollen, dust mites, mold and animal dander.
Next, the doctor or allergist will inject very small doses of extracts of the substances you are allergic to under your skin. This helps your body “get used to” the allergen, which can result in fewer or less severe allergy symptoms.
Shots are administered two or three times a week during a build-up phase, which lasts three to six months. Once a maintenance dose is reached, shots are given every few weeks for three to five years. Eventually, you and your doctor may decide to discontinue the shots.
For almost ten years, Mary Harris, who has had immunotherapy, had allergies that caused a runny nose, watery eyes, and sinus infections. After having a skin test done at my office, she says, “I found out that I was allergic to grass and pecan trees – and I have five pecan trees in my yard!”
After six to eight months of allergy shots, Mary’s symptoms began to improve and now, one and a half years after beginning the immunotherapy, she has been able to discontinue the shots with very few allergy symptoms.
Another patient, Eric Smith, suffered from severe allergies all of his adult life living in Texas. Smith says, “Every year I had sinus infections and seasonal allergies in the winter, spring, and fall.” He decided to get a skin test and found that he reacted positively to an array of almost fifty allergens.
After a year of immunotherapy shots, he returned for another skin test and found that he had only fifteen positive reactions to allergens. Smith continued with an injection more specified to those allergens and another year later, he had zero positive reactions.
“I discontinued the allergy shots about a month ago,” Smith says, “and I have been symptom free ever since, while the rest of my family walks around sniffling and sneezing.”
Both Smith and Harris say that they would advise people to discuss immunotherapy with their doctor. “It doesn’t work for everyone, but if it works for you, do it wholeheartedly. It sure made me feel better,” says Harris.
As for the idea of getting frequent shots, Smith says, “Don’t be afraid, they seem scary at first, but they become easy if you keep up with them!”
Many patients find that the allergy shots cost no more than the combined cost of medicine, doctor and emergency room visits, and missed days of school and work due to sinus and ear infections, bronchitis, and other conditions aggravated by allergies. Also, allergy shots may prevent children who have allergic rhinitis from getting asthma.
For those who cannot seem to get relief, immunotherapy may be a great solution. All it takes is a conversation with a doctor who can recommend the best way to treat allergies here in Texas and begin enjoying every season once more. You’ll want to weigh your personal feelings, the cost, and whether your current therapy relieves your symptoms with few side effects.
Allergy shots are not for everyone, but if you want to treat the cause of your problem, and not just the symptoms, immunotherapy might be just what the doctor ordered.
Johnson Dellosa, MD is a board-certified family medicine physician with Huguley Medical Associates. His clinic, which offers allergy testing and immunotherapy, may be reached at 817-783-2318.