Three dark figures, masked and robed in black, hover over the steaming cauldron. They slowly move around chanting foreign words like alternaria, hair of cat, Timothy grass, and weeds from rags. Finally, the mixture stops boiling. The custodians of the secret mixture wait for the brew to cool before it is ladled into little bottles. Is this how allergists get their vaccines?
Of course not! But modern allergic treatment, termed immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is frequently misunderstood and, in truth, confusing. Let's set it right. Treatments of allergies are no more secretive than any other aspect of medicine. Since allergy shots have been around for almost 80 years, much is known about them. We now know how and why they work. We also know what is the best material to use and the best way to treat patients. Allergy shots have come a long way since the early 20th Century when allergy materials had to be made by the allergist--not quite like the opening paragraph of this article, but they were still crude mixtures. In this article, you will learn why allergy shots work, how they work, what improvements have been made, and what the future will bring to help allergic patients.
What is an Allergy?
What is an allergy? Allergies occur when a person reacts adversely to something most people tolerate. For example, most of us can eat eggs, but a certain group of allergic individuals have trouble if they eat eggs. This trouble can be hives, rashes, swelling of the tongue and mouth, asthma, or even shock, and very rarely, death. So allergies can be serious. Allergies can be from things we eat, things we breathe, and things we touch. The simplest approach is to avoid what makes us sick. That is the best treatment--don't eat eggs, in our example.
Avoidance and medications
But when it comes to allergies caused by substances we breathe in, they are very hard to avoid. Ragweed, a plant that produces lots of pollen, blooms in late summer and early fall. The pollen blows into people's eyes, noses, and lungs, causing allergy-induced hay fever, allergy-induced asthma, allergy-induced ear and sinus diseases, and even allergy-induced eye disease, called allergic conjunctivitis. (Looks like pink eye, but itches.) Ragweed is a seasonal allergy as are grass and tree pollens. But there are all-year or perennial substances that cause allergies. Examples are house dust mites, house pets, molds, and even cockroaches.