What Are Allergy Shots?

Allergy shots (allergen immunotherapy) can treat some types of allergies. They're sometimes used for children with allergies to:

Allergy shots aren't helpful for food allergies.

Why Are Allergy Shots Used?

An allergy is when the body's immune system overreacts to a usually harmless substance. Things that cause allergic reactions are called allergens. Common allergens include dust mites, molds, pollen, pets with fur or feathers, stinging insects, and foods.

Allergic Reaction Instruction Sheet

The body reacts to the allergen by releasing chemicals, one of which is histamine. This release can cause symptoms such as wheezing, trouble breathing, coughing, a stuffy nose, and more. Some allergic reactions can be serious.

The best way to prevent or control allergy symptoms is to avoid allergens. Allergists (doctors who identify and treat allergies) look for causes of an allergic reaction with skin tests and blood tests. Based on the test results, they can recommend treatments, including medicines and ways to avoid allergens.

If these treatments don't help, the allergist might recommend allergy shots.

How Do Allergy Shots Help?

Allergy shots help the body build immunity to specific allergens, so it's not as bothered by them. Allergy shots also can help kids who have allergies and asthma have fewer asthma flare-ups.

Allergy shots contain a tiny amount of a purified form of the allergen causing problems. Doctors increase the dose slowly over the first 3–6 months. This lets the immune system safely adjust and build immunity to the allergens. This is called the buildup phase.

The highest effective safe dose becomes a child's monthly maintenance dose. Health care providers give this to the child for about 3 to 5 years. Most kids will need fewer shots over time.

Some kids' allergy symptoms ease during the buildup phase. Others don't feel better until they're into the maintenance phase. After years of getting allergy shots, some may have lasting relief from symptoms.

Are Allergy Shots Safe?

Allergy shots given by a trained health professional are safe and effective. Kids as young as 5 years old can get them.

Kids may have a small reaction near the site of the injection. This can happen right away or within a few hours of the shot. Skin on the arm near the site may get a little red, itch, and swell. Applying an ice pack to the area and giving the child an antihistamine can help.

More widespread reactions, like hives and itching all over the body, are less common. And more severe reactions (like wheezing, breathing problems, throat swelling, and nausea) are rare. A serious reaction needs treatment right away. That's why kids who get allergy shots are watched in the doctor's office for about 30 minutes afterward.

Some other tips:

  • Kids should get allergy shots only under the supervision of an allergist/immunologist.
  • A child who is ill, especially with asthma or breathing trouble, should not have allergy shots until the doctor says it's safe.

Before your child gets allergy shots, be sure to tell the doctor about any other medicines your child takes.

How Can I Find an Allergist/Immunologist?

Ask your primary care doctor to recommend an allergist/immunologist. If a family member or friend sees an allergist/immunologist, ask who they recommend. You also can search online at:

How Can Parents Help?

Doctors give allergy shots with needles that are smaller than those used for most childhood vaccinations, so they're less painful. Still, for some kids a shot can seem scary. A parent's positive and supportive attitude can help. Treatment goes much better when parents are confident and committed to the immunotherapy.

While getting a shot, your child can squeeze your hand, sing a song, watch a video, or use another distraction that will take the focus off the injection.

Understanding the benefits of allergy shots and how they work will help you and your child accept them as routine.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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