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Chronic Conditions

Do You Have Allergies? Know Your Top Treatment Options

man with allergies enjoying run with dog
man with allergies enjoying run with dog

For the millions of Canadians with allergies, understanding the treatment options — including allergen immunotherapy — is critical in the quest to feel better.

Spring is just around the corner, which means that so is allergy season. Many Canadians suffer from allergies year-round, and 20 to 40 percent suffer from allergic rhinitis (or hay fever), which is often seasonal. If you’re one of these people, you know how miserable allergies can make you feel. The desire to feel better is strong — but many don’t know where to start.

Understanding allergies

“What causes allergies is complex and multi-factorial,” says Dr. Jason K. Lee, a Toronto-based clinical immunologist and allergist. Genetic, epigenetic, and environmental interactions, including the microbiome, all factor in. “These things combine to cause your immune system to recognize things in the environment that should be left alone but the body’s immune system mistakenly identifies as harmful,” explains Dr. Lee.

Treatment options for allergies include non-pharmacologic therapy, pharmacotherapy, and immunotherapy. “Non-pharmacologic therapies essentially refer to environmental control: avoiding avoidable allergens and doing things to minimize exposure, such as using air filters at home or avoidance of pets if you’re allergic,” says Dr. Lee. “Pharmacotherapy is the use of drugs. We commonly use antihistamines, mast cell stabilizers, and intranasal steroids. With allergen immunotherapy (AIT), the idea is to give patients exposure to an allergen in measured, small, and clinically studied doses, which will eventually lead the body’s immune system to become anergic, which means to have a diminished response toward the allergen.”

A long-term solution

AIT is an attractive option as it can help with symptom control, reduce risk for complications of allergies, and lead to long-term medication use reduction. “Once your body’s immune system no longer sees the allergen as something dangerous that it needs to attack and constantly clear, you’ll experience fewer symptoms if the AIT is successful,” says Dr. Lee. “As such, you may need less symptomatic medication and, in the best cases, no other allergy medication. AIT is a long-term treatment option that teaches the body’s immune system to leave harmless airborne allergens like tree pollen, dust mites, ragweed, and cat dander alone.”

Dr. Lee notes that AIT involves either subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots) or sublingual immunotherapy (allergen tablets placed under the tongue). The sublingual form can be taken at home following the first dose under medical supervision, giving patients convenience and ease with fewer doctor visits required and no dose adjustment required to complete the treatment. Although individual results may vary, Dr. Lee notes that, based on his experience over 14 years of practice, many of his patients benefit from AIT, in line with clinical and research data.

Top 3 Allergy Treatments: Avoidance, Symptom Relief, or Desensitization

When it comes to combating allergies, there are three main ways to help: avoidance, symptom relief, and desensitization. Each option comes with its own benefits and side effects. To find the best solution for each individual, patients should consult with their doctor about appropriate treatment.

Option #1: Avoidance

When you know you’re allergic to something (an allergen), it’s important to try and avoid it as best you can. Of course, that’s not always easy to do, especially if you’re not sure what’s causing your allergy.

Option #2: Symptom relief

Various medications — from nasal sprays to drops to pills — can help relieve allergy symptoms. Some are available over the counter, while others can be prescribed by your doctor.

Common treatments for allergy symptoms include:

  • Antihistamines: Antihistamines block histamine to help relieve allergy symptoms.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroid nasal sprays have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps relieve allergy symptoms.
  • Combination decongestant/antihistamine products
  • Combination antihistamine/corticosteroids products
  • Leukotriene inhibitors: Leukotriene inhibitors help block leukotrienes from causing allergy symptoms.

Option #3: Desensitization

Allergy immunotherapy (AIT) may also be an option, and is used by many because it targets the source of allergies. AIT works by giving you repeated, small doses of an extract of the allergen that you’re allergic to. The idea here is that exposure to an allergen in measured, small, and clinically studied doses (enough to stimulate your immune system, but not enough to cause an all-out allergic reaction) will eventually lead the body’s immune system to become anergic — in other words, desensitized and immune to the allergen. What this means for patients is that over time, their immune system will become less sensitive to the allergen and will react to it less. As the immune system builds up a tolerance to the allergen, allergy symptoms fall to the wayside, allowing patients to breathe a sigh of relief.

AIT is not for everyone. Before getting AIT, it’s important to find out what you’re allergic to. Your doctor will likely refer you to an allergist who will do diagnostic tests to find out the cause of your allergies and determine whether AIT is right for you.

AIT comes in two forms:

  1. Allergy shots, also referred to as hyposensitization therapy and subcutaneous allergen immunotherapy
    • Can be used for variety of allergies, including pollen, pet dander, and dust mites
    • Require going to the doctor as often as once per week
  2. Allergy immunotherapy tablets
    • Can be taken at home, sublingually, after the first dose, which is taken under your doctor’s supervision
    • Target a single allergen that your doctor thinks is the main cause of your symptoms
    • Take away all the inconvenience of multiple visits to the doctor’s office to get injections

Working with your allergy specialist is the best way to find out what works for you, from allergy avoidance to AIT.

See your GP and ask for a referral to an allergist. Learn more at

This page was sponsored by one of Canada’s leading research-based pharmaceutical companies.

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