While medications such as pills, inhalers and steroid injections can all help with the symptoms of allergy, only immunotherapy has been shown to actually alter the underlying allergic disease. What’s more, it has been shown to prevent the development of future allergies and, in children, prevent allergic
rhinitis (standard hay fever) from progressing into full-blow asthma.
It used to be that there was one option for allergy immunotherapy. It was subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT) or allergy shots. Another option, though, known as sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) became widespread in the 1980s. Like allergy shots, it starts with a liquid mixture of common allergens suspended in a saline solution. With shots, that mixture is injected into the skin where it can absorb into the blood flow. With sublingual immunotherapy drops, it is dosed under the tongue where it can absorb into the bloodstream through special cells in the mouth.
In countries in Europe, SLIT is used about as often as allergy shots for allergy immunotherapy. Here in the U.S., it still lags behind allergy shots but is quickly gathering momentum.
SLIT offers a few distinct advantages over shots. The first is obvious: no needles! Along with being less painful than shots, it is also safer. SLIT has not been associated with the same degree of risk for anaphylactic reaction that shots have, so it can be taken at home (rather than under direct supervision at the doctor’s office). This convenience factor is one of the biggest selling points of sublingual immunotherapy! Patients can simply dispense it under the tongue daily rather than driving back and forth to the doctor’s office multiple times a week for injections. Some physicians are even finding that patients progress faster using sublingual immunotherapy than they do with allergy shots because the treatment can be taken more frequently (daily) than it can with shots (usually two or three times per week).
Another advantage of SLIT is that it works for a younger patient base. Shots are usually restricted to kids ages 7 or 8 and up. Shots have been shown to be safe for kids less than 5.
Finally, though shots don’t work for food allergies, recent studies have shown sublingual immunotherapy drops to be effective in desensitizing people to food allergies. This is a huge breakthrough since there has never yet been a mainstream, widely effective treatment for food allergies! Allergies are miserable, but the treatment doesn’t have to be. SLIT is a welcome addition even as more and more Americans are affected by the growing “allergy epidemic.”