Allergy Shots Part 1: What Are They? How Do They Work?

May 25, 2010

Allergy shots, or allergen immunotherapy, is the only FDA approved treatment available to make someone less allergic to a specific allergen.  All other FDA approved therapies for allergies are directed at controlling symptoms.  Allergen immunotherapy is directed at changing the immune response.  Allergen immunotherapy administered with shots is the only FDA approved method in the United States.   There is a lot of ongoing research on administering allergen immunotherapy through droplets under the tongue (sublingual immunotherapy).  This form of immunotherapy is used in Europe.

The purpose of the immune system in general is to protect the body against microorganisms (germs) and act as scavengers within the body to remove defective, dying or abnormal cells.  The allergic arm of the immune system directs itself against otherwise harmless substances such as dust mite or tree pollen with an allergic immune response mainly mediated by the allergen antibody called IgE.    When an allergen and a specific IgE against that allergen is present in an allergic individual, the IgE binds to cells in the immune system causing the immediate release of allergic mediators such as histamine and leukotrienes.  This causes immediate symptoms and initiates a larger and more progressive allergic immune response.  Allergy shots work by changing the immune response away from an allergic immune response. 

There are many complex changes that occur within the immune system with successful allergen immunotherapy.  It is important to note that the changes are very specific and do not affect other aspects of the immune system.  The various changes are as follows:

1. Shifts the immune response toward a non allergic response to the allergen. 

2. Generates specific regulatory immune cells that induce immune tolerance, or a decrease in the immune response, toward the allergen.

3. Induces the production of non allergen antibody called IgG toward the allergen.  These antibodies can block the allergen antibody (IgE) from releasing mediators such as histamine, that are responsible for allergic symptoms. 

4. Blocks the immediate and late phase allergic response.

5. Decreases the recruitment of inflammatory cells that contain mediators to the nose, eyes and lungs. 

6. Decreases the rise in allergen antibody that occurs in allergic individuals during the allergy season. 

Many people think of allergen immunotherapy as a more natural approach to the treatment of allergies since it utilizes the allergens themselves to induce immune changes.  That might be true, but it is important to point out that allergen immunotherapy is NOT a homeopathic approach to allergies.  Homeopathy is based upon treatment using minute quantities of substances.  Allergen immunotherapy starts with minute quantities of allergen, but doses are gradually increased and it only really works when high doses called maintenance doses are administered. 

Stay tuned for more information on allergen immunotherapy. 

Note: The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and is not meant as specific medical advice for a specific person.   If you have a medical problem, please contact your doctor.

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