Study Shows Allergy Shots Are Effective
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY.
Uncontrollable sneezing, watery and itchy eyes, generally bleariness. Is that even a word? Well, if you have hay fever you know what I'm talking about. And maybe you've considered allergy shots to control your hay fever. Well, do they actually work?
Here to tell us is Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He's our regular expert on medical issues and a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. And Syd has a new article up on hay fever and allergy shots at the online magazine Slate.
Welcome back to DAY TO DAY, Syd.
Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Yale Medical School, Slate): Hi, Madeleine.
BRAND: Well, before we get into whether or not these shots work, let's just talk about the shots themselves. What are they and how do they work?
Dr. SPIESEL: The shots are simply an extract of something to which people are allergic that are given in slowly increasing, very slowly increasing, frequent injections. And they work in a way which is not entirely clear, but it seems that these shots push the immune response away from an allergic reaction and more toward a conventional - the kind of conventional reaction that protects us against illness.
BRAND: And you used to think well, there's not much to this. It doesn't really work?
Dr. SPIESEL: Yeah. I was always sort of skeptical, partly because of some family stories. But I have to say this paper is pretty persuasive. I've come away convinced, and I hate it when I'm wrong.
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BRAND: Don't we all? Well, there have been - according to this paper - more than a thousand studies on whether or not allergy shots work. And this paper examines all 1,000 of them or so. And what did the researchers find?
Dr. SPIESEL: Well, the extracted 50 or so really useful papers. And what they found was that there's no question that this immunotherapy or desensitization treatment works. The patients who got it needed less antihistamine treatment, needed less nasal steroids, and had a lower symptom score after treatment.
BRAND: OK, so well if they work so well for hay fever, could they be effective against other allergies? Let's say you have a…
Dr. SPIESEL: Oh, yeah. They really are effective against other allergies, and some have been well known for a long time. So, for example, some very similar shots are used to decrease the risk of a terribly serious allergic reaction to, for example, bee stings.
BRAND: Now what about food allergies?
Dr. SPIESEL: No, they actually don't work very well for food allergies, and it's not entirely clear why but they really are not very effective for that.
BRAND: So would you recommend, people listening to this, they run out and get allergy shots?
Dr. SPIESEL: You know, it's complicated. There's no obvious answer. In general, I'd recommend trying to do it the easy way first. These shots are expensive and they're annoying and you have to have them over, you know - people will take them for three years or something - longer than that, frequent visits to the doctor.
And so you have to have a tremendous personal investment to do that. In some countries they're really - cost of care is regarded as not proportional to the benefit even if it does decrease allergies.
On the other hand, we all know some people who are completely overwhelmed. They're just rendered unfit to do anything by severe hay fever and the medications that are available just don't help them. And for those patients I think it's justifiable.
BRAND: Dr. Sydney Spiesel is a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. His article on hay fever and allergy shots is at Slate.com. Thanks again, Syd.
Dr. SPIESEL: Oh, you're welcome.
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BRAND: Stay with us. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.
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