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Allergy Shots: Underused Treatment?

Many scowl at the mention of allergy shots. But experts say they can offer lasting relief -- freeing people from daily allergy medications.

Allergy Shots May Be Cheaper continued...

"The insurance companies say as long as one effective medicine is available over the counter, patients should take it -- and not more expensive prescription drugs," he tells WebMD. "So unlike in years past, they no longer cover those other drugs. The cost has shifted from the insurance companies to the patients."

Meanwhile, allergy shots continue to be covered by insurance companies -- usually in full or with a modest co-pay. But even before Claritin went over the counter and changed the insurers' rules, allergy shots still seemed to make good economic sense, at least in the medical community.

In April 2000, Respiratory Reviews published a study indicating that a patient's out-of-pocket drug costs for treating year-round allergic rhinitis was $1,200. But researcher Timothy J. Sullivan III, MD, of Emory University, calculated that the same patient would pay only $800 for the first year of allergy shots -- the most expensive year. In following years, when allergy shots are done monthly or even less frequently, those costs drop to between $290 and $170. Over six years, that amounts to a $1,300 to $2,900 savings with allergy shots, that study shows.

And there's the August 1999 study in TheNew England Journal of Medicine that shows allergy shots to treat grass pollens can provide up to three years of additional relief after treatment has ended. "Once you stop antihistamines and other drugs, you're right back where you started," says Zitt. Even a couple of missed doses can do that.

Allergy Shots and the Triggers They Fight

Allergy shots are effective against all sorts of allergy triggers that float in the air, including:


  • Tree pollens
  • Grass pollens
  • Weed pollens
  • Mold spores
  • Dust mites
  • Cat dander
  • Insect stings

But when it comes to other types of allergy triggers -- such as food allergies and skin reactions -- there is not enough research to support allergy shots, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Before allergy shots begin, allergists identify the specific allergen(s) with the skin scratch test, avoiding a common problem; patients who "self-diagnose" themselves, and may reach for antihistamines under the assumption they have seasonal hay fever when they could also be allergic to year-round dust mites, mold, or cat dander.

Allergy shots benefit some patients more than others. Those with hay fever tend to fare best, with more than 90% getting "significant" relief, says Li. Allergy shots are also extremely effective for mild-to-moderate asthma, specifically when attacks are caused by allergies, or bee sting and other insect sensitivity.

"Allergy shots are also effective for those with cat and dust mite allergy, but the challenge there is that there continues to be significant continued exposure -- and avoidance of the allergen is the most important factor in preventing symptoms," Li tells WebMD. "That's what makes mold allergies especially difficult. You really need to stop leaky pipes and other sources causing mold. That's why I personally have less confidence in mold allergy shots compared to the excellent results seen for pollen, cat, and dust mites."

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