Children with allergies often end up on multiple medications in order to control symptoms and to help prevent complications associated with underlying allergic disease. Although medications used today for treatment of allergies and asthma are safe for long-term use, all medications have potential side effects. As an allergist seeing pediatric patients, I see parents who are concerned about their children using allergy and asthma medications indefinitely. That’s why we offer an alternative to medications—specifically allergy shots—for some of these patients.
Allergy shots are a series of injections that, over time, desensitize the body to the allergens. The allergy shots consist of the purified allergen (i.e., oak tree pollen or dog dander) contained in sterile solution that is given as an injection. It is the same thing our body is exposed to naturally in the environment but in a purified form. When the body is exposed to the allergen by breathing it in through our nose, allergic symptoms such as sneezing, itching, stuffy nose or wheezing result. However, when the same allergen is instead injected, our immune system responds completely differently. Instead of causing allergic symptoms, this form of exposure actually produces tolerance. Gradually, symptoms are significantly reduced, in many cases, enough to discontinue most if not all medications. So for patients looking for a more natural way to treat allergies, allergy immunotherapy is a great alternative.
In order for a child to be a candidate for allergy shots, he or she must first have an allergy documented either through an allergy skin test or an allergy blood test. Based on clinical history of allergy or asthma, the option of allergy immunotherapy may be offered. A major difference with administration of allergy shots in the pediatric population is that the child needs to be developmentally ready to receive allergy shots. Allergy shots are safe when given in an appropriate setting (a doctor’s office), but there is a risk of an allergic reaction. Therefore, the child must be able to clearly communicate symptoms to a provider should he or she have a reaction. For most children, this happens around five years of age.
The benefits of starting allergy shots in childhood include the following: a decrease in the need for chronic medications, prevention of recurrent ear or sinus infections, improvement in the patient’s quality of life, and prevention of the progression to asthma. Allergy shots are not a temporary fix. Studies show that after completing a course of high dose immunotherapy (3-5 years) that the benefit gained should last for more than 30 years!! That is good news to parents looking for another option in the treatment of a child’s allergies or asthma!
Dr. Megan Partridge Stauffer is a board certified allergist with The Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center. She received her medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk. She completed her residency in Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland and her fellowship in Allergy and Immunology at Medical College of Georgia, Augusta. She is board certified in Allergy and Immunology and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (FAAAAI) and the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (FACAAI). Dr. Stauffer enjoys spending time with her family, foreign travel, and medical mission work and is also an active member of her church.