April 24, 2014 -- As many as 4 in 10 Americans have sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes due to allergies. If you’re one of them, allergy shots can help ease your reaction to the plants, insects, or animals that trigger your symptoms. But they require multiple doctor visits over years.
That’s one reason only about 5% of Americans with allergies get the shots, even though they can provide long-lasting relief, says Linda Cox, MD, of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. The rest rely on avoiding whatever triggers their allergies, which isn’t always easy. Or they use antihistamines and steroid nose sprays to temporarily ease symptoms.
But now allergic people have a new option: under-the-tongue tablets they can take at home. The prescription tablets, called Grastek, Ragwitek, and Oralair, are the first allergy treatments of their kind on the U.S. market, although they’ve been available in Canada and Europe. All three medications were approved by the FDA this month.
The tablets contain the same type of extracts used in allergy shots. As with the shots, the goal is to boost a patient’s tolerance of allergy triggers.
“People still need to see an allergist,” says Sandra Lin, MD, associate professor otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins. “The first thing to know is what you’re allergic to.”
Cox and Lin address common questions about the new tablets and other allergy treatments.
Q: What types of allergies do the tablets target?
A: Grastek contains an extract from Timothy grass, commonly known as cat’s tail. It is found in all 50 states as well as most of Canada, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oralair contains extracts from Timothy grass plus sweet vernal, orchard, perennial rye, and Kentucky bluegrass. Ragwitek contains an extract from short ragweed.
Q. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the tablets compared to allergy shots?
A. One of the main advantages of the tablets is convenience, Lin and Cox say. Shots are given in a doctor’s office. It starts with once or twice a week for 3 to 6 months, then once or twice a month for 3 to 5 years, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Some people have fewer symptoms for years after they finish the shots, Lin says. Those who get symptoms again might need more shots.
One drawback of the tablets is that they might not cover everything people are allergic to, Lin says. Shots can be tailored to a person's needs. “In the United States, a lot of people are sensitive to more than one thing,” she says.