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The aim of immunotherapy is to retrain a person's immune system to tolerate specific allergens, such as pollen, dust mites or venom. Allergen-specific immunotherapy – also known as desensitisation treatment – involves giving a patient gradually increasing amounts of the allergen until their body learns to tolerate it.

Immunotherapy treats the cause of allergy, not just symptoms, and it continues to work long after treatment is finished.

A common immunotherapy treatment in New Zealand would involve weekly injections under the skin of gradually increasing doses for 12 weeks, then monthly maintenance shots for three to five years.

Most patients see an improvement in symptoms within six months but the effect is long lasting after treatment is stopped (if patients complete the full three to five year course). You can also treat dust mites and grass pollen at the same time – perfect for the many Kiwis who are allergic to both.

Oral or sublingual immunotherapy is also available – where the allergens are given via drops or tablets under the tongue. Studies have shown that it is safer but not quite as effective as allergy shots and you can only treat one allergy at a time.

The field of immunotherapy is moving fast with the quality of (allergen) extracts and their use improving, says allergy specialist and immunologist Dr Andrew Baker, of Waitemata Allergy Clinic.

He believes more people should consider desensitisation treatment, even those who have mild allergies, because it can make a big difference to their quality of life over a long period – with benefits lasting up to 20 years according to some studies. A lot of people with allergic rhinitis, for example, have never been told there is a treatment that can have permanent benefits for them," Dr Baker added.

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Issue: Summer-Autumn 2015