OTC meds vs. allergy shots: A UNC doctor weighs in on NC’s early pollen season

Warmer temperatures came earlier than normal this year, which meant earlier blooming of flowers and trees and an earlier-than-usual start to the pollen season.

It also meant the early onset of seasonal allergies.

Early blooming and the accompanying pollen are becoming increasingly common as our climate continues to warm, said Kelly Oten, an assistant professor and forest health specialist at N.C. State University.

“You hear anecdotally that allergy season is getting worse,” Oten said. “It is.”

Does warm weather in February mean an early pollen & allergy season? What to know.

But what does this mean for allergy medication users? Will our tried-and-true over-the-counter allergy pills work just as effectively? Or do we need to turn to a different solution?

The News & Observer spoke with Dr. Edwin Kim, division chief of UNC Pediatric Allergy & Immunology, to get our questions answered.

Do allergy pills & nasal sprays work in stronger pollen season?

The over-the-counter treatments many of us have been using, such as antihistimine pills and nasal sprays, should still work, Dr. Kim said. But unfortunately, since an earlier season snuck up on us, allergy sufferers may not have begun their medication routine early enough. And a longer allergy season means more time taking these medications.

“Over the counter solutions can be effective for many patients, but it’s critical to start these early,” he said.

Kim typically sees pollen and allergy symptoms pop up at the very end of February, though this year, pollen counts rose and his patients began complaining of symptoms by mid-February.

“Over the counter solutions are easy to get, don’t require a prescription and, for most patients, control symptoms enough,” he said.

Are shots an option for seasonal allergies?

If sufferers are looking for a more permanent solution to seasonal allergies, they can consider allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, said Kim..

“At my clinic, it’s usually people where medication is not enough, or those where medication works, but they are sick and tired of taking it every day, year after year,” he said.

How do allergy shots work?

Allergy shots can stop all allergy symptoms through weekly injections that continue for three to five years.

“Antihistamines and nose sprays don’t change the immune system. So once you stop the medications, the symptoms come right back,” Dr. Kim said.

How can I get allergy shots?

Allergists prescribe immunotherapy, which is a series of shots that are intended to stop allergy symptoms.

Skin or blood testing is used to identify the specific allergens (including pollens) a patient might be sensitive to. The allergist then makes a custom prescription for the patient that is taken through weekly injections at a doctor’s office.

The first shot is very dilute, and a slightly stronger dose is given each time. After six months, the dose is no longer increased, and patients may only come in for shots once or twice a month.

The whole process takes between three to five years.

“Patients usually start to feel a little better after two or three months, but we keep patients on for the long duration because with this long treatment, we see patients being able to totally stop their shots and not have their symptoms come back,” Dr. Kim said.

Should I use over-the-counter allergy medications or get allergy shots?

Each treatment course has pros and cons. In short:

  • Over-the-counter solutions are easy, effective and relatively inexpensive, Dr. Kim said. But they don’t change the allergy, and patients may have to take them regularly for many years to stay on top of their discomfort.

  • Allergy shots can be permanent solutions that get rid of allergies entirely. But they’re a hefty time commitment, and weekly shots for years can get expensive.

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