When it comes to pollen and other outdoor and airborne allergies affecting children, treatment shouldn’t end at asking a doctor for a prescription. Many parents are discovering that allergists can provide specialized help in a way that family doctors cannot.

“A general practitioner assesses a child’s symptoms and history, and then makes an educated guess as to what allergen(s) is causing the problem,” says Dr. Susan Waserman, a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at McMaster University. “An allergist does comprehensive allergy testing to identify the root(s) of the problem. There is no guess work.”

An allergist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of various allergic diseases. The allergist has studied internal medicine and then pursued two additional years of specified allergy and immunology training, after earning their medical degree.

Immunotherapy treats root cause of environmental allergies

The immune system defends the body against viruses and harmful bacteria. In individuals prone to environmental allergies, the immune system perceives substances such as dust, pollen, mould, and pet dander as a threat and releases chemicals to attack them. This process causes symptoms such as itching, sneezing, congestion, and watery eyes.

Over-the-counter drugs, often recommended by family doctors, only temporarily relieve these symptoms. Immunotherapy treats the root problem. A specialist uses skin and/or blood tests to determine the child’s allergy triggers and then exposes them to the allergen in incrementally greater amounts through injections or oral tablets. In response, the child’s immune system gradually grows to tolerate allergens in the environment.

The response to immunotherapy varies among patients but studies suggest that it leads to at least a 70 percent reduction in allergy symptoms and the need for medication. Some studies suggest it may also reduce the risk of developing new allergies and lead to long-lasting allergy relief even once treatment stops.

The younger the patient, the better

Dr. Waserman says there is no set age at which a person can start immunotherapy, but specialists generally wait until a patient is five years old. In theory, she says, the younger the patient, the better, because the immune system is still developing. “If you want to alter your child’s immune system,” she advises parents, “act as soon as you see a problem.”

“Most of the children we recommend for immunotherapy haven’t responded well to over-the-counter drugs or have refused to take them,” says Dr. David Fischer, President of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (CSACI). “In other cases, we use immunotherapy on children whose parents don’t want them to be on medication long-term or who are looking for a ‘cure,’ not just symptom relief.”

He says immunotherapy is most effective in treating children who have problems with sources of pollen, dust mites, and cat hair, for which there are standardized treatments. He adds that subcutaneous (injection) immunotherapy is not used to treat food allergies.

“If your child has symptoms and there is a family history of allergies, you should see an allergist,” Waserman advises parents. “Good treatment is available. There is no need to suffer in silence.”