An allergy causes a person’s immune system to overreact when exposed to a certain substance. When an allergy patient is exposed to a particular insect’s venom through a bite or a sting, they may suffer excessive swelling in the affected area, hives, swelling of the tongue or throat, or even anaphylaxis, which may include any of the aforementioned symptoms as well as shortness of breath and/or low blood pressure. Simply put, a person with an insect allergy might die from a simple insect sting.
Immunotherapy is a form of treatment in which the body’s immune system is triggered in a deliberate and controlled way. When immunotherapy is used to counteract allergies to insects, a small amount of venom from the problem-causing insect is extremely diluted with a saline solution. This diluted venom is then injected just under the patient’s skin, in a practice commonly know as an allergy shot. Allergy shots are given in a doctor’s office, and the patient will likely be asked to remain in the office for some time following the injection to monitor for any adverse reaction. Over the course of four to six months, the patient receives allergy shots with gradually increasing amounts of venom once a week. Once the allergy shots contain the optimum amount of venom, the frequency of shots is reduced to roughly once every four to eight weeks. Receiving these shots on a regular basis, lowers the patient’s sensitivity to the venom, meaning he/she is less likely to have a severe reaction to future bites or stings. Allergy shots are available to reduce sensitivity to the venom of honey bees, yellow jackets, hornets, paper wasps, and fire ants.
Allergy shots are not expected to completely desensitize the patient’s immune system. The goal is to reduce the severity of future reactions. Immunotherapy for insect allergies is primarily recommended for patients who have previously had severe reactions. Ordinarily, once a patient has had a severe reaction to an insect bite or sting, there is approximately a 60% chance that any future reactions will be equally or more severe. With immunotherapy, those odds are generally decreased to approximately 5%.
Immunotherapy is often effective, but may not be an ideal option for many patients. Immunotherapy is a slow, time-consuming, expensive endeavor, and some patients may not be good medical candidates for it. Your doctor or allergist will help you determine if immunotherapy is the best option for your individual needs.