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Avoiding the Pet Allergy Nightmare

05 May

We are well-known for being a nation of animal lovers, with estimates showing that 13 million households in the UK have at least one pet. So, it may seem surprising that a recent survey shows 1 in 10 animal lovers are actually allergic to their own pet, with 44% not even realising they had the allergy until they bought their pet home.

Naturally, your pets can make you sneeze, this can be because of loose hairs, different types of bedding and even the types of food they eat. But for some, these allergens may be far more severe and can cause reactions such as itchy and swollen eyes, hives on the skin and wheezing or coughing which can lead to the worsening of asthma.

An allergy is our body’s way of responding when it comes into contact with a substance it may deem as harmful. Having an allergy to dogs, cats and even horses is incredibly common and apart from staying away from them all together, there are medicines and solutions that can ease the symptoms temporarily.

Allergies are rarely treated by your doctor unless you have a severe reaction which is caused by one specific allergen, in this case you can undergo a desensitisation programme.

Dr Adam Fox, consultant children's allergist and clinical lead of allergy at Guys and St Thomas’, explains what desensitisation is and how it works.

What is desensitisation?

“Desensitisation, or immunotherapy, is used for people who are allergic to certain animals, such as horses, cats and dogs as well as for pollens and dust mite allergies. It involves deliberate exposure to large amounts of the problem allergen so that the body’s immune system gets used to and changes its response towards it. Whilst this used to be done through a series of injections, it can now be done using allergen extract sprayed under the tongue.

Although desensitisation will not cure an allergy, it will significantly reduce how allergic you are to something. A real benefit of the treatment is that it has a long-lasting effect, meaning that even after you’ve stopped receiving the treatment for many years, your symptoms will still be improved.

What happens before treatment?

Before starting immunotherapy, you will need to have some allergy tests, this will involve a skin prick test and sometimes a blood test to determine what allergen is causing the problem. You will also have to have a physical examination to assess your general fitness, this is important so that conditions such as uncontrolled high blood pressure and asthma are stabilised prior to commencing with treatment.

What’s New?

Recent medical advances have meant that we no longer have to administer immunotherapy through injections. Instead the allergen extract is given to the patient under the tongue either by a spray, tablets or drops. This method is called sublingual immunotherapy and is very safe, with serious reactions being extremely rare.

Sublingual immunotherapy can also be given at home, although the first dose is always given under careful supervision in the hospital. The allergen extract needs to be taken on a daily basis for 3 years or through the whole pollen season for three years, you will start to see a difference in the way your body reacts to the allergen within six to eight months.

Sublingual immunotherapy has been shown in large studies to be an effective treatment for allergic rhinitis, but good comparison studies have not yet been done to compare it with injectable immunotherapy. It is very important to take the sublingual immunotherapy medicine regularly as missing out doses can cause it to fail. Therefore, many patients prefer injections as compliance is less of an issue. On the other hand, sublingual immunotherapy is more acceptable to children and adults who dislike needles.

It is important to remember that desensitisation is very specific to what you are allergic to, so if you are desensitised to dogs then treatment for this will make a difference to this allergy and not an allergy to grass pollen or cats.

Your allergy specialist will be able to help with what treatment is the best for you

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