Spring is a glorious season, bringing warm sunshine and gentle breezes. But for children with allergies, the pollen-laden air also produces miseries like itchy and watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, and hives. In addition, allergies to other indoor and outdoor substances, such as dust mites, mold, pet dander, and stinging insects, can cause an array of reactions ranging from annoying to life-threatening. According to experts, when medication and avoidance of allergens don't ease the symptoms, parents of affected children should consider allergy shots.
Immunotherapy, which includes the ubiquitous allergy shot, is standard treatment for respiratory allergies when other methods fail, says Dr. Linda Cox, a Florida allergist and Chair of the Immunotherapy and Allergy Diagnostics Committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI). Allergy shots are a form of treatment aimed at decreasing sensitivity to the substances that trigger symptoms. These allergens are identified by tests, such as the commonly used scratch test, where a small drop of the substance being tested is placed onto the skin and is then scratched or pricked with a needle at the contact point. Unlike medications used to counter symptoms, shots can prevent the development of new allergies and allergic rhinitis into more serious problems, such as asthma, according to Dr. Cox. Immunotherapy may also provide long-term relief even years after a child has discontinued the injections.
"That's the main reason parents should consider it," she says. "Medicines don't change the immunological response, but shots can bring about long-term remission." Dr. Cox says the success rate of immunotherapy is generally 80 to 90 percent for allergic rhinitis and asthma, and even greater for insect venom allergies. Shots also improve lung function in children with asthma, she says, and are highly effective in preventing serious, life-threatening reactions to insect stings.
Immunotherapy involves injections in small amounts of the allergen(s) causing the problem, and the process works like a vaccine by changing the way the immune system reacts, according to the AAAAI. A child's body responds to the injections, given in gradually increasing doses, by developing an immunity or tolerance to the allergen. As a result of these immune changes, allergy shots can lead to decreased, minimal, or no symptoms. The shots are only recommended for environmental allergies, according to the AAAAI, not for food allergies. The best option for children with food allergies is strict avoidance of the offending food, says the organization.