Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways that can make it dangerously difficult to breathe. Although asthma is a chronic condition, it’s often triggered by acute events, like exposure to an allergen.
More than 20 million Americans have asthma, and the condition leads to millions of medical visits and thousands of hospitalizations each year. Better control of this condition, specifically in terms of managing acute flare-ups or exacerbations, is key to reducing medical visits and improving quality of life.
The field of immunotherapy has grown exponentially over the last 2 decades. This article explores how shots — namely immunotherapy injections — can be used to help treat and manage allergic asthma.
“Asthma (allergy) shots” is a generic term used to describe treatments for asthma that fall under the category of immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy for allergies involves exposing you to a small amount of the substance that triggers a reaction in your immune system (an allergen) over time to help desensitize you to its effects.
Many asthmatics are triggered by exposure to allergens or irritants, so using immunotherapy against the most bothersome allergens can help reduce acute asthma attacks or flare-ups and prevent the need for emergency treatments.
When you’re injected with an immunotherapy shot for allergic asthma — also known as subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT) — you’re given a small amount of the allergen you’re sensitive to.
Your immune system should then begin to make non-allergic antibodies against this allergen, preventing your body from mounting an immune response that causes allergic symptoms in the future.
The process of developing a tolerance to these allergens takes time, and immunotherapy doesn’t work the same for every person. It depends on the response created by your individual immune system.
How long does it take for asthma (allergy) injections to work?
It can take as long as a year to develop a therapeutic response to allergen immunotherapy. Your body’s reaction to immunotherapy injections is divided into two phases.
- The buildup phase. In this phase, you’re injected with gradually increased amounts of allergen once or twice each week. This phase can last 3 to 6 months as your body builds antibodies to particular allergens.
- The maintenance phase. After you’ve reached a therapeutic level of immunity to a particular allergen, you need to continue treatment in order to keep this protection up. The dose of the allergen required during this phase depends on your individual immune response. Injections are less frequent during this phase, usually every 4 to 6 weeks, but the exact interval will be determined by your doctor.
How frequently do you need to get asthma shots?
How often you receive immunotherapy for asthma will be determined by your doctor, but shots are often given once or twice a week in the buildup phase, and once every 4 to 6 weeks in the maintenance phase.
It can take several months to reach a maintenance level. Maintenance treatment usually continues for 3 to 5 years. After that, you may have developed the desired immunity to your allergens and no longer need the treatment.
The most common side effect is a local reaction to the injections given with immunotherapy. This can appear as:
In some cases, you may develop systemic effects similar to your standard allergic reaction after a shot. This
- nasal congestion
- throat swelling
- chest tightness or pain
- nausea or vomiting
Emergency medications used in treating asthma attacks are known as rescue medications. These are usually bronchodilators to help open your inflamed airway and make breathing easier. Examples of rescue drugs used in asthma include:
In some severe cases, your doctor may write a prescription for epinephrine given by an injectable pen. This pen delivers this emergency medication to you through your skin or muscle to quickly relieve severe allergic asthma attacks.
The annual cost of injectable asthma (allergy) immunotherapy (SCIT) is about $1,722 per year. Sublingual formulas (SLIT) offer some cost savings at an estimated $670 per year.
Recent studies indicate that, for most asthma patients treated with this therapy, immunotherapy is usually more cost-effective than treating the asthma attacks and flare-ups that would have occurred without the treatment.
Are they usually covered by insurance or Medicare?
Most private health insurance companies cover at least part of the cost of allergy shots, and they are also covered by Medicare under your Part B coverage if your doctor considers them necessary.
Allergy shots aren’t just for people with asthma; they can be used in people with other forms of allergic reactions, too.
Immunotherapy shots for allergies can be used in children and adults with:
- allergic rhinitis
- allergic asthma
- allergic conjunctivitis (eye allergy)
- stinging insect allergies
Allergy shots are not used to treat food allergies, because these allergies function differently.
Are there alternatives to shot-based asthma treatments?
If the idea of regular shots is off-putting or stressful for you, there are other options out there. In addition to traditional asthma treatments, you may also want to ask your doctor about sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT). This treatment is taken orally, under the tongue, and is sometimes called “allergy drops.”
Allergy shots are a form of immunotherapy that can help desensitize you to your asthma attack triggers. These shots take time to build up in your system but are very effective at reducing severe complications from your condition.
Your doctor can help you decide if allergy shots are the best treatment plan for you.