Should you get allergy shots?
Too many Canadians suffer with seasonal allergies when they don’t have to, says U of A allergist.
By LESLEY YOUNG
Allergies are one of the most common health complaints Canadians may not need to have.
Not only do we have one of the highest rates of allergies in the world, many people decide not to seek out help from a doctor, or if they do, often aren’t referred to an allergist, said Harissios Vliagoftis, a University of Alberta allergist in the Department of Medicine.
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“These are the number one allergy I see in-office,” said Harissios Vliagoftis, a U of A allergist. The allergen lingers making it difficult to manage, he added. “If you move into a house where a cat used to reside, it can take up to six months for the allergen to clear out. And in classroom situations, even being around students who own cats can trigger a reaction.”
Birch tree and grass pollens
For some allergic sufferers, every spring birch tree pollen will trigger symptoms, only to be followed by grass pollens, ensuring an allergic season from April through to July. After that, the next culprit (moulds) may step in.
Prairies sport quite a lot of outdoor moulds, said Vliagoftis. “We have something called snow mould, which exists under blankets of snow. When they melt, the mould is released,” he added. Unfortunately, allergen shots are not very effective for mould allergens.
An allergist will test you to confirm what you’re allergic to before recommending treatment.
“There are excellent over-the-counter and prescription medications for the majority of patients, however, some patients who are resistant to them arrive at my clinic after living with terrible allergic symptoms—usually hay fever—for 20 years or more,” he said. “People with seasonal, cat and other environmental allergies should know that there are approaches that work when existing medications don’t.”
Vliagoftis is referring to allergy shots or subcutaneous immunotherapy, the only treatment proven to change the immune system and prevent allergies, and possibly asthma, from happening.
“The subcutaneous injections change your immune system and improve the disease long-term,” he said, adding that symptoms can be gone in as soon as a few months and stay away for 10 years.
If there’s a solution, why aren’t people lining up to get on the long wait list to see an allergist? Lack of awareness for starters, said Vliagoftis.
Here’s what Vliagoftis says you need to know.
What allergy shots tackle
Anyone with hay fever from certain pollens, or who is allergic to cats, or who has an allergy to stinging insects, may seek allergy shots as a long-term solution. There is also a new form of pill-based immunotherapy available for sufferers of grass allergies, which are quite common in Edmonton.
When allergy shots make sense
If your current medical treatments are not working, and if your family physician feels immunotherapy is an option, then a referral to an allergist makes sense.
Who is eligible for shots
You and your allergist will discuss many relevant factors including the length of your allergy season, type and severity of your symptoms, the particular type of allergic triggers for your symptoms, and desire to stop using other allergy medicines such as antihistamines and prescription nasal corticosteroids long-term, before making a decision.
The downside of shots
Allergy shots come with minimal side effects though they are administered in-office in case of an anaphylactic reaction. However, you will also need to be willing to make a time investment. The shots are given once a week for the first three to four months, and then once a month for the next three to five years. You should start to notice a difference after six months.
How much they cost
The doctor’s visits are covered by provincial health plans, but you’ll need to check with your insurer to confirm the cost of the shot itself. If it’s not covered, the out-of-pocket cost is roughly $250 annually.
“The key message here is not to ignore your allergies,” said Vliagoftis, in part because for many allergens, it’s impossible to avoid triggers. “You may be able to avoid cats, but often it’s not possible to totally avoid exposure to outdoor allergens during peak seasons.”
If you struggle with symptoms, visit your physician and inquire about all the options available to you.