If you suffer from allergies and are tired of having to take daily medication to get rid of the symptoms, then you might be interested in undergoing immunotherapy, more commonly known as allergy shots.
What Is an Allergy Shot?
Put simply, an allergy shot (also known as subcutaneous immunotherapy, or SCIT) is an injection that introduces very small amounts of a particular allergen to your immune system. They can treat multiple allergies with one serum.
An ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or allergist crafts the allergy shot serum specifically for you after performing an allergy test. You can receive the shots at your doctor’s office or undergo training and then give yourself the shots at home.
The allergen in the shot triggers your immune system but doesn’t cause a full-on allergic reaction. This allows your immune system to become accustomed to or less sensitive to that allergen.
Your doctor gradually increases the amount of the allergen in the injection, which gradually makes your immune system less sensitive to the allergen. With time, your allergy symptoms or need for allergy medication decreases significantly or disappears.
When you start immunotherapy, you’ll need to get allergy shots once or twice weekly. After about three to six months, you’ll begin to feel the effects. The length of treatment depends on many factors, but the average treatment time at our center is one to two years.
After that, depending on your case, you may need to receive maintenance shots every other week or so to continue the immunotherapy effects.
You can undergo immunotherapy for insect, seasonal and indoor allergies, including allergy shots for hay fever. However, immunotherapy is not recommended for food or drug allergies.
[Related: Immunotherapy for Allergies]
What Is in an Allergy Shot?
Allergy shots consist of two ingredients: allergens (whatever you’re allergic to) and a dilutant to dissolve the allergen (glycerol). Basically, you’re receiving an injection with a microdose of what you reacted to during allergy testing. There are no medications in allergy shots, so they’re a “natural” way to treat allergies.
How Many Allergy Shot Vials Will I Need?
Usually, how many allergy shots or vials of serum you’ll need depends on how many allergens you react to during allergy testing.
At our center, we usually limit each shot or vial to six to eight antigens. Most of our patients require only one to two vials, but extremely allergic patients may require three to four vials.
Do Allergy Shots Really Work?
Studies have shown that when administered properly, the success rate of allergy shots (immunotherapy) is 85%.
Doctors consider immunotherapy treatment successful when you can come into contact with allergens and experience few to no allergy symptoms.
Other immunotherapy goals are to reduce or eliminate your need for allergy medications, as well as to eventually stop your need for continued shots.
Allergy Shots vs. Pills
Allergy shots and pills combat allergies in completely different ways. The most common over-the-counter (OTC) medications for allergies are antihistamines. They’re temporary, short-term solutions that treat only the symptoms, not the underlying causes of allergies.
Antihistamines work by blocking histamine receptors in the brain to reduce allergy symptoms, but they do not cure allergies. Common OTC allergy medications include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec). Antihistamine drugs often cause drowsiness and sluggishness.
By comparison, allergy shots are long-term solutions that address the source of your allergic reactions — your immune system.
[Related: Top 3 Ways to Treat Seasonal Allergies]
How Do Allergy Shots Work?
Allergy shots work by slowly introducing minute amounts of a certain allergen or allergens to your body, which trains your immune system to be less sensitive to or to tolerate the allergen(s).
For in-office immunotherapy, you visit your doctor’s office to receive allergy shots at least once weekly. However, depending on your circumstances, you may be able to give yourself the shots at home.
Allergy Shots at Home
To receive allergy shots at home, you first attend an educational program where medical professionals teach you how to give yourself the injections. They also teach you about safety and how to handle potential emergency situations in terms of the treatment.
When you’re fully trained and comfortable, you can continue immunotherapy from the comfort of your home.
Paying for Allergy Shots
How much you pay for allergy shots depends on multiple factors, including your insurance coverage.
How Much Do Allergy Shots Cost?
On average nationwide, weekly allergy shots cost roughly $1,600 to $4,000 per year. The first vial of serum (which an ENT doctor or allergist creates specifically for you) can cost up to $600, and subsequent vials may cost up to $300.
However, a $600 vial is expected to last a full year. Additional expenses include visiting the doctor’s office and receiving the shots. The cost may be higher or lower according to a range of circumstances, such as insurance coverage and how often you receive shots.
Call your doctor to discuss your unique situation.
At our center, we typically request preauthorization from your insurance provider to avoid any denials. We’ll provide an estimated out-of-pocket cost to account for coinsurance and deductibles.
Our cash prices vary depending on the number of vials and antigens you need. The average cost is $100 for one vial that lasts three months.
Are Allergy Shots Covered by Insurance?
Most health insurance plans cover allergy shots if your doctor has determined you need them from a medical standpoint. Some insurance policies may limit the number of allergens in a single vial of serum.
Does Medicaid Cover Allergy Shots?
If your doctor has determined immunotherapy is medically necessary, Medicaid may cover allergy shots. However, this depends on the state you live in and your Medicaid plan. Call your Medicaid resource to find out exactly how much immunotherapy will cost for you.
Does Medicare Cover Allergy Shots?
If your doctor deems immunotherapy is medically necessary for you, Medicare Part B covers most of the cost of allergy shots. How much you pay for them depends largely on the type of Medicare plan you have. Call your Medicare resource to learn more about your coverage.
Allergy Shot Schedule
Your allergy shot schedule will depend on your doctor’s input, allergen(s), severity of symptoms and reaction to treatment. After the ENT doctor or allergist creates your personal shot serum, this is the general treatment schedule:
- You receive injections once or twice weekly for three to six months (this is called the build-up phase).
- Note: Your doctor gradually increases the amount of allergen(s) in the shot.
- You receive injections every two to four weeks for about four to five months, depending on your reaction to the treatment (the maintenance phase).
- Note: The maintenance phase may last up to 12 months.
- If needed, you receive maintenance injections about once monthly for three to five years.
Again, your schedule will depend on multiple factors.
At our center, we initially place patients on a weekly schedule. When we know the shots are effective, Dr. Pasha may increase the frequency of shots to twice weekly to speed the immunotherapy process.
How Long Allergy Shots Last
Allergy shots are meant to cure your allergies, not simply treat the symptoms. Because immunotherapy is a long-term treatment, relief should last a lifetime. However, you may need periodic maintenance shots according to your condition and reaction to treatment.
How Long Do You Have to Take Allergy Shots?
You generally take allergy shots (either at your doctor’s office or at home) for one to two years. Because people’s allergies and sensitivities vary widely, your duration of treatment may differ. Consult a doctor to find out what your length of treatment might be.
When to Skip Allergy Shots
If you have heart disease, suffer severe asthma, are immunocompromised, are pregnant or take beta blockers, immunotherapy may not be the right treatment for you. If you need relief from food or drug allergies, then immunotherapy isn’t your best option.
Where Can I Get an Allergy Shot?
You can get an allergy shot from a doctor after consultation with an ENT doctor or allergist. They will check whether your health is appropriate for immunotherapy.
After consulting with an allergist or ENT doctor, they will perform an allergy test to discover the allergen(s) you are sensitive to. Then, they will tailor a shot serum specifically for you.
Your family doctor can usually administer the shot that the ENT doctor or allergist formulated. However, it’s best to stay with the ENT doctor or allergist for comprehensive, thoroughly personalized treatment.
Who Can Get Allergy Shots?
Most adults and children five years and older can get allergy shots. You are particularly eligible if you have to take multiple medications for allergies to keep them under control.
Children’s Allergy Shots
Most children aged five and above can undergo immunotherapy. Allergy shots may be especially helpful for children who suffer from mild asthma or who have severe allergies.
Allergists and ENT doctors can perform allergy tests on very young children (for example, at one month old), but this also depends on the child’s health condition. It’s best to wait until a child is at least five years old to start immunotherapy.
The shot schedule for children is similar to that for adults. However, the way a child reacts to treatment (physically and behaviorally) may influence their treatment schedule.
Allergy Shots When Pregnant
If you’re pregnant and want to start or continue receiving immunotherapy, consult with your ENT doctor or allergist. Most data suggests allergy shots are safe during pregnancy.
However, if you are pregnant and receiving immunotherapy, your doctor will carefully monitor your dosage and the health of the fetus to watch for any adverse reactions. Although negative reactions to the shots are rare (for example, anaphylaxis), such reactions may harm the fetus.
[Related: 5 Ways to Find Allergy Relief While Pregnant]
Allergy Shot Reactions
You may have reactions to allergy shots, but these are usually mild.
Potential reactions include minor allergic symptoms (like sneezing and congestion) as well as itching, redness, swelling and soreness at the place of injection. Usually, your doctor will have you wait 30 minutes after receiving a shot to monitor you for negative reactions.
Although very rare, if you experience anaphylactic symptoms after getting injections at home, call 911 immediately.
Remember: The potential for allergy shots to help your body avoid anaphylaxis far outweighs the risk of them causing anaphylaxis.
[Related: The Best Apps for Allergy Sufferers]
Why Does My Allergy Shot Burn?
Allergy shots may burn because they contain a small amount of the substance that irritates your immune system. Sometimes, the injection needle is the irritant.
To reduce irritation, your doctor may recommend taking an oral OTC antihistamine (like Benadryl) about an hour before receiving a shot.
Burning after shots is usually mild and can last one to two days, diminishing in intensity over time. On rare occasions, the burning will last longer than two days. Speak with your ENT doctor or allergist if this occurs.
Allergy Shots: Swollen Arm
Like burning at the injection site, you may experience swelling in your arm after receiving a shot. Your body’s reaction to the allergen in the injection is usually the cause of the swelling. The hypodermic needle can also be the cause.
Swelling usually goes down after a few hours.
You can place a cold compress on the inflamed area and/or take OTC pain relievers — especially anti-inflammatory OTC drugs like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) — for relief until the swelling subsides. Check with your doctor beforehand to make sure it’s safe for you to take OTC pain relievers.
If the swelling doesn’t go down after a day or two, or if you develop an infection at the injection site, call or visit your doctor. They will likely prescribe you antibiotics and/or a corticosteroid medication like prednisone.
Delayed Reaction to Allergy Shots
You may have a delayed reaction to shots, but this is uncommon. If the injection goes into your muscle instead of right under your skin, you are more likely to experience a delayed reaction. If this is the case, your doctor may move or recommend you move the injection site.
Delayed shot reactions are similar to immediate reactions, and the treatment options are mostly the same (cold compresses and OTC pain relievers). If symptoms are severe or persist for days, see your doctor for further treatment and advice.
Your Allergy Shot and COVID Vaccine: Can I Get an Allergy Shot After COVID Vaccines?
You can get allergy shots after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. However, your doctor will probably recommend waiting 24 to 48 hours between shots just to make sure your risk for adverse reactions is minimal.
Overall, no evidence has shown that getting a COVID-19 vaccine while undergoing immunotherapy is harmful. Doctors recommend a wait time of 24 to 48 hours out of an abundance of caution.
Similarly, a medical professional will have you wait 15 to 30 minutes after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine to watch for any negative reactions.
[Related: Why You Should Get a Flu Shot Every Year]
Here, we’ll answer a few frequently asked questions.
Can I Take Benadryl After Allergy Shots?
Yes, you can take Benadryl (diphenhydramine) after you get a shot. Your doctor may recommend doing so to provide temporary relief for potential side effects like sneezing, congestion and itching.
Do Allergy Shots Need to Be Refrigerated?
Yes, allergy shots need to be refrigerated constantly.
If you take at-home shots, refrigerate serum vials as soon as possible after your allergist or ENT doctor gives them to you. The active content in the serum can deteriorate quickly at room temperature, so refrigeration is important to keep it viable.
Are Allergy Shots Vaccines?
Allergy shots are not technically vaccines, but they work similarly. Your body grows accustomed to a small amount of a substance that your immune system must fight. Then, your system learns to become less sensitive to or to tolerate the substance.
Does Getting Allergy Shots Lower Your Immune System?
No, allergy shots do not weaken or lower your immune system. This is a common myth. Immunotherapy retrains your immune system to tolerate a substance to which it would usually react negatively.
Do Allergy Shots Cure Allergies?
This depends on your unique circumstances and physical condition. At our center, approximately 85% of our patients who complete their allergy program do not require any medications afterward. In many cases, patients never experience severe allergy symptoms again.
Get Lasting Relief With Dr. Pasha
At Pasha Snoring and Sinus Center, we want to help you enjoy an allergy-free life.