Learn How to Deal With Spring Allergies

An ear, nose, and throat specialist discusses promising treatments in the fight against food and airborne allergens.

A dandelion blowing in the wind
A dandelion blowing in the wind

Watery eyes, runny nose, sore throat, coughing, headaches, and asthma.

Each year, more than 50 million Americans experience allergy-related symptoms like these, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. If you or a loved one is among them, the effects can be more than just a nuisance. In fact, allergies are the sixth-leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.

While there is no cure for food or airborne allergies, there are treatments — including medications and immunotherapies — to help minimize allergy-related symptoms.

Health Matters spoke with Dr. William Reisacher, an ear, nose, and throat doctor at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who explains the causes of common allergies, how to effectively manage their associated symptoms, and how Allerdent, the toothpaste he developed to help allergy sufferers, is a new option available for delivering immunotherapy, the closest thing to a cure.

What are allergies?
Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system that causes the body to defend itself against specific harmless substances, commonly causing symptoms such as sneezing, itchiness, runny nose, and even stomach and skin problems. Common airborne allergens include pollen, dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, and mold. The most common food allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, soy, egg, fish, and shellfish.

Certain allergens, such as dust mites, pet dander, and mold, are present throughout the year. For pollen, trees release allergen into the air in spring, grasses release them in the summer, and weeds release them in the fall. In warmer climates, pollen may be present throughout the year.

Are people born having allergies or are they acquired over time?
Some people are born with a higher genetic possibility of developing allergies than others. Whether a person will actually go on to develop symptoms depends on many factors, such as having other family members with allergies and their level of exposure to various allergens and germs.

What are common allergy symptoms?
Allergic inflammation can affect any area of the body, but for airborne allergies, the most common symptoms are sneezing, itchiness in the nose and eyes, runny nose, and nasal congestion. Food allergies typically cause itching and swelling in the mouth and throat, as well as stomach problems such as nausea and vomiting. High exposure to a food that a person is allergic to can produce a very severe, life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which needs immediate treatment.

Can allergies be treated?
There are three types of treatment for allergies. The first is avoiding the foods or airborne allergens you are allergic to, but that can be very difficult. Alternatively, over-the-counter-medications, such as oral antihistamines or nasal steroid sprays, can be used for temporary symptom relief but may cause side effects if used for extended periods of time.

The only treatment available that can actually make a person less allergic is called allergy immunotherapy, or desensitization. Allergy immunotherapy, which has been used for over 100 years, involves regular exposure of your immune system to concentrated extracts containing the allergens you react to over a period of three to five years, resulting in improvements that can last two to three decades after the treatment stops. Essentially, this treatment alters the immune system in a very specific way that allows it to ignore the offending allergen rather than reacting to it. The two areas of the body where these extracts can be applied are under the skin and on the membranes lining the mouth.

Portrait of Dr. William Reisacher

Dr. William Reisacher

Are there treatment methods that are more suitable for children?
Allergy immunotherapy is particularly helpful for young children because their immune systems are very capable of learning how to ignore the offending allergens. In addition, immunotherapy can prevent the development of additional allergies and even asthma.

Unfortunately, younger children are typically not offered immunotherapy using shots because of the risk of provoking a severe allergic reaction, discomfort, and inconvenience of weekly allergy shots in the doctor’s office. Liquid drops, containing the same allergen extracts as shots, work just as well but are difficult for children to keep under the tongue for two minutes every day. Dissolvable tablets under the tongue are also available, but they can only treat one allergen at a time and are only available for a few allergens.

Are there any new treatments or discoveries that are particularly promising?
Scientists and doctors are developing allergen extracts that are safer for injection, and they are also investigating some methods for protecting people with food allergies against accidental ingestion.

Tell us about Allerdent, the toothpaste you developed to treat allergies.
Allerdent is a fully functional, commercial-grade toothpaste I developed that can stabilize liquid allergen extracts and release them to a wide area of the lining of the mouth to deliver allergy immunotherapy during the daily ritual of brushing the teeth. Once the allergens contact the lining of the mouth, its immune cells attach to them and bring them to the lymph nodes in the area. Over time, this makes a person less allergic to the allergens that are included in the toothpaste, which can be tailored to the exact allergens a person is allergic to. This method of immunotherapy delivery is safe and easy for children to use, and this makes daily treatment simple and seamless.

What type of allergy/allergies does Allerdent treat?
Allerdent is available to treat all airborne allergies, through prescription from an allergy specialist, and it will soon be evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of food allergies, including to peanuts. There is currently no FDA-approved product on the market to treat food allergies for the roughly 30 million children and adults suffering from this life-altering disease.

Can allergies be cured?
Allergy immunotherapy is disease-modifying, instead of offering just temporary symptom relief, so it is the closest thing to a cure that is available. It can decrease symptoms, decrease medications, allow medications to work better, and increase quality of life for many years after the treatment has stopped.

Any other advice for allergy sufferers?
There is no need to suffer from allergies. There are treatments available, so speak with your doctor and discuss all the options.

William Reisacher, M.D., is a board-certified otolaryngologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an associate professor of otolaryngology at Weill Cornell Medicine. He specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of airborne and food allergies in children and adults. Dr. Reisacher is a co-founder of and has an equity ownership in Allovate Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that is developing Allerdent, and serves as an unpaid consultant to the company.

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