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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.
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Allergy Shots May Be Cheaper

It's precisely because Claritin has gone over the counter that these days, taking once-a-day medications may be more expensive than allergy shots, say experts.

"Many of the standard medications used for common allergies like hay fever are no longer paid by Medicare, Medicaid, and many private insurance companies," says Myron Zitt, MD, chief of allergy and immunology at the Queens Long Island Medical Group in Babylon, N.Y., and clinical associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, School of Medicine.

"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:

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