By Danielle Braff, Special to Tribune Newspapers
2:39 PM EDT, April 11, 2011
Michelle Jason's allergies were so bad that constant migraines arose from her clogged sinuses. Surgery unclogged them, but she knew it was time to do something drastic.
So Jason, who is allergic to "everything outside and inside," turned to allergy shots about five years ago.
And now she can sit in Central Park, take a walk through a flower garden and breathe easily through her nose.
"It's nothing like what it used to be," Jason said. "I'm much better than I've ever been in my whole life."
The road to get there hasn't been easy, however. Jason's been taking shots on and off for five year, with a break in the middle because she thought her move to New York would help her allergies (it didn't). And she's had to endure nearly constant prodding of both arms for years.
But for the woman who had been taking pills three times a day, carrying nasal spray everywhere she went and avoiding the outdoors like the plague, it's been worth it.
Not many people would willingly take shots for five years, however.
It's only for extreme situations — allergy specialists say that when all else fails, allergy shots are the way to go.
How the shots work
Allergy shots contain small quantities of allergens, and they're injected into your arm. So if you're allergic to weed pollen, the allergy shot will contain a little weed pollen — and that amount will increase over time to increase your tolerance to your allergen.
They're similar to vaccinations in that they have just enough allergens to safely stimulate your immune system, but they will only cause an allergic reaction in severe cases.
The shots can be successful for only certain allergies: pet dander, weed pollen, hay fever, insect bites, even asthma and other environmental allergies, said allergist and immunologist Dr. Anju Peters.
And they're not for the occasional allergy sufferer, Peters said.
"If you have persistent symptoms despite taking medications, then they're worthwhile," she said. "It's usually recommended for people who have symptoms for more than three months each year."
The dedication you must have to see the long process through is one of the reasons the shots aren't for mild cases.
Dr. Clifford Bassett, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, has his patients come in for shots weekly for the first two to six months. Visits are then monthly for anywhere from one to five years.
But there's usually a payoff. Bassett estimates that allergy shots yield a significant reduction in symptoms, if not an end to an allergy, in 90 percent of his patients.
Most people will see symptom reduction during the first six months, but for others with more severe allergic reactions, it can take a few years to win any relief.
Will I be able to get a pet?
Unfortunately, undergoing pet dander allergy treatments for years doesn't mean that you can now head to the shelter and adopt a cat or a dog.
While allergy shots work well for people with pet allergies, they're not intended for people who want to live with a pet permanently, Peters said.
The problem is that pet allergens are very potent and sticky, so they tend to get into your airways and your body easily. So while your symptoms around other people's pets should get significantly better, you probably won't be able to keep one in your home.
"We still say that avoidance is No. 1," allergist Dr. Anju Peters said.
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