WASHINGTON - A big change may be coming for people with severe allergies.
Many have had to endure repeated allergy shots, particularly for hay fever. But those injections could be replaced by a simple pill or a drop placed under the tongue.
Dr. Hemant Sharma, head of the Food Allergy Program at Children's National Medical Center, says there is increasing research showing this type of delivery method, called sublingual immunotherapy, may be just as effective and perhaps even safer than traditional shots.
Many of the studies so far have involved only adults. But Sharma says there is great potential for treating children.
"It would be much easier to have a child take this treatment orally or under the tongue rather than receive an injection," he says.
Two companies - Merck and the French-based Stallergenes - are seeking FDA approval for sublingual tablets to treat grass pollen allergies. Both medications are already in use in Europe.
While the focus in the U.S. has been on pills or drops for allergies to inhaled substances, American researchers have begun to look at their use in treating food allergies as well.
"This is still strictly experimental," Sharma cautions.
But with food allergies sharply increasing among the young, it could eventually be a boon to treatment.
Like traditional immunotherapy by injection, these pills and drops, in essence, train the immune system to tolerate a particular allergen.
With sublingual treatment, a small dose of the allergen is placed under the tongue and then swallowed a minute or two later. Tolerance for the allergen builds over time and relief is far more long lasting than with antihistamines, which only ease the symptoms.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, which represents allergists across the country, says most clinical trials show sublingual immunotherapy is a relatively safe and effective way to treat allergies to dust mites, grass, ragweed, cat dander and tree pollens.
The ACAAI says side effects are usually mild and occur in the very early stages of treatment.
The number of people in the U.S. with allergies is estimated at 30 to 60 million.
WebMD synthesized the data and says roughly one in five Americans has either an allergy or asthma.
The medical website puts the annual cost of allergies to the health care system and businesses at $7.9 billion.
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