Knowledge Bank

Immunotherapy ~ help for hayfever sufferers

So it’s that time of year again. No, I don’t mean Wimbledon, although one in four there will likely be sufferers, according to NHS statistics, and it won’t be being triggered by the strawberries. Because while many of us look forward to the lazy, hazy days of summer, for those who suffer from hay fever, May to September can be a seasonal nightmare.

Allergic rhinitis, as it is officially known, can range from just a few sniffles and sneezes, when pollen is in the air, to full-blown swollen sinuses and red, runny eyes ~ and it’s really not a pretty sight.

The pharmaceutical companies, of course, make a pretty penny out of hay fever remedies that don’t really work ~ or only lessen the symptoms slightly. In fact, the official line of the orthodox medicine industry is that hay fever cannot be cured completely. But if you go to your doctor, he will probably give you antihistamine tablets, nasal (nose) sprays and/or eye drops to help reduce the symptoms. 

However, hay fever is a just a small, albeit uncomfortable for some, health condition within a much wider, over-arching health problem that’s been getting worse over the last 20 or so years: that of an over-excited immune system. And this may be why a treatment which aims to modulate the reactions of the immune system has been getting some good results with hay fever. It’s known as immunotherapy.

What is immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy is a method of treatment which aims to stimulate or modulate the immune system with the intention of preventing the spread of disease or for therapeutic purposes.

(By the way, this is NOT immunosuppressive therapy, which attempts to suppress or reduce the actions of the immune system.)

Immunotherapy can be used for several different conditions, though it is commonly associated with cancers and allergies. This is a relatively new form of treatment (especially for the treatment of cancer) and research is ongoing to find better, more productive forms of immunotherapy.

How does immunotherapy work?

The basic idea behind immunotherapy treatment is that it stimulates the immune system. The way in which this works varies with what exactly is being treated. For treatment of cancers, the immune system is being stimulated to attack the cancer by rejecting and destroying tumours. This is done one of two ways – either by immunising the patient, so that their immune system can recognise the cancerous cells, or by administering therapeutic antibodies which aid the immune system to destroy the cancerous cells.

Immunotherapy for the treatment of allergies involves a programme of hyposensitisation (also known as allergy desensitisation). In this treatment the patient is given increasing doses of an allergen which has been highlighted as problematic to them with the intention of training the immune system to tolerate, and therefore not react so strongly to the allergen.

This works because when someone is allergic and comes into contact with an allergen, it is the body’s reaction to the allergen which creates the discomfort experienced. By training the immune system so that it is used to the allergen, the reaction is therefore not experienced at all, or is at least reduced in severity.

Is immunotherapy safe and effective?

In terms of the effectiveness of immunotherapy in the treatment of cancer, it is still relatively early days. Some success has been found but efficacy is often limited by other factors. Despite this, further study is underway – one particular study has shown very positive results in the treatment of skin cancer, so there is hope for Immunotherapy in the treatment of cancer.

The use of immunotherapy for allergens has been in existence for a little longer and hence there has been more time to perfect this form of treatment. However, Immunotherapy cannot necessarily be relied upon in the treatment of allergies and research is still ongoing.

Immunotherapy when used for the treatment of allergies can come with side effects. Usually the common side effects are slight allergic reactions at the site of the injection, such as itching, swelling and redness, but these are not normally serious.

More serious reactions can rarely occur, including anaphylaxis and hives, which should be treated immediately.

To learn more about therapies which help with hay fever, go to The Therapy Book.