I ran across a statement the other day which grabbed my attention. So much so that I felt I had to do some research on it. The statement, published on the website of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), reads: “Allergy shots work like a vaccine.”1
The AAAAI explains:
Your body responds to injected amounts of a particular allergen, given in gradually increasing doses, by developing immunity or tolerance to the allergen.1
Allergy shots, also known as allergy immunotherapy or subcutaneous immunotherapy (SCIT), have been described as “vaccines for allergy”2 or “vaccines for allergic diseases.”3 According to a study in the journal Current Opinion in Immunology, “Vaccines aim to establish or strengthen immune responses but are also effective for the treatment of allergy.”2
Allergy shots contain a small amount of an allergen (a substance that triggers an allergic reaction)—just enough to stimulate the immune system without causing a “full-blown allergic reaction.” The goal is to gradually desensitize the immune system and allow it to build up a tolerance to the allergen(s) and eventually minimize or eliminate the allergic symptoms.4
The overall principle for vaccines is similar, only that vaccination generally focuses on stimulating a mild immune response to a certain infection-causing antigen such as a bacteria or virus.5
As with vaccinations, there are side-effects associated with allergy shots. There are mild side-effects such swelling or redness at the injection site, itching, watery eyes, stuffy nose, and sneezing. And there are more severe ones such as rapid or irregular heartbeat, tightness in the chest or throat, difficulty breathing or wheezing, dizziness or light-headedness, loss of consciousness, and death.6
So, what could be causing these reactions to allergy shots? As with vaccines, it’s hard to tell. But, as with vaccines, a good place to start would be to look at the ingredients in allergy shots starting with the allergen(s). Some of the more common allergens include “mold and pollen from grasses, ragweed and trees.”7
Phenol or carbolic acid is derived from distillation of coal tar and is an extremely poisonous compound that is used in a highly diluted form as an anti-microbial in vaccines and other products.11 It is an ingredient in five vaccines licensed in the United States, including Hib (PedvaxHIB), Hib/Hep B (Comvax), Pneumococcal (PPSV-23—Pneumovax), Smallpox (Vaccinia—ACAM2000), and Typhoid (inactivated—Typhim Vi).
Although the safety record of injected phenol is unclear, phenol has been known to have a “toxic chemical effect on the central nervous system leading to sudden collapse and loss of consciousness.”12
Allergy shots also contain the blood plasma protein known as human serum albumin (HSA),10 13 which is used as a stabilizer. HSA has been known to cause anaphylaxis,14 described by the AAAAI as a”serious, life-threatening allergic reaction.”15
Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical treatment, including a prompt injection of epinephrine and a trip to a hospital emergency room. If it isn’t treated properly, anaphylaxis can be fatal.14
Ah, but here’s the real kicker. Allergy shots can contain aluminum as an adjuvant. Same as with vaccines, only perhaps much more aluminum per shot and cumulatively, given that allergy shots are given more frequently (often weekly or monthly7 16) than vaccines.17
According to Christopher Exley, PhD, professor of bioinorganic chemistry at Keele University in the United Kingdom:
Aluminium-based adjuvants are the most commonly used adjuvant in sub-cutaneous allergy immunotherapy (SCIT). Approximately 75% of all such adjuvant-based therapies include an aluminium salt. In parallel with the use of aluminium-based adjuvants in vaccinations these adjuvants have been in use in allergy immunotherapies for over 80 years.18
“There are very few data purporting to the safety of aluminium adjuvants in allergy immunotherapy and particularly so in relation to longer term health effects,” adds Dr. Exley.18
More than 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from allergies every year. Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness among Americans and cost the U.S. economy more than $18 billion annually. What we don’t know is how many people are suffering from the side-effects of the allergy shots they take and what the economic costs are of that treatment.19
There is a general belief that allergy shots are “almost always are safe if given correctly.”16 So, as with vaccines, there does not appear to be an urgency within the medical community to ascertain whether that belief is valid. This is unfortunate because the incidence of allergies in the U.S. is continuing to rise each year 20 and, likely, so will the practice of giving allergy shots.
1 American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Allergy Shots (Immunotherapy). AAAAI.org.
2 Linhart B, Valenta R. Vaccines for allergy. Curr Opin Immunol June 2012; 24(3): 354–360.
3 Young-Yuen Wu A. Immunotherapy – Vaccines for allergic diseases. Journal of Thoracic Disease Apr. 1, 2012; 4(2): 198–202.
4 Mayo Clinic Staff. Allergy shots. Mayo Clinic.
5 The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Vaccine Safety Forum: Summaries of Two Workshops (1997). The National Academies Press.
6 eMedicineHealth. Allergy Shots (cont.). eMedicineHealth.com.
7 FamilyDoctor. Allergy Shots: Could They Help Your Allergies? FamilyDoctor.org.
8 Nelson MR, Cox L. Allergen Immunotherapy Extract Preparation Manual. AAAAI Practice Management Resource Guide, 2014.
9 Wikipedia. Diluent. Wikipedia.org.
10 Huggins J, Looney RJ. Allergen Immunotherapy. Am Fam Physician Aug. 15 2004;70(4):689-696.
11 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phenol. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health July 22, 2015.
12 Parpia R. Toxic Phenol Ingredient in Vaccines. The Vaccine Reaction Apr. 4, 2016.
13 Is Immunotherapy for Me? Stevem Machtinger, MD.
14 Stafford CT, Lobel SA, Fruge BC, Moffitt JE, Hoff RG, Fadel HE. Anaphylaxis to human serum albumin. Ann Allergy August 1988;61(2):85-8.
15 AAAAI. Anaphylaxis. AAAAI.org.
16 WebMD. Allergy Shots for Allergic Rhinitis. WebMD.com.
17 Kramer MF, Heath MD. Aluminium in allergen-specific subcutaneous immunotherapy – A German perspective. Vaccine 32(33):4140-4148.
18 Exley C. Aluminium adjuvants and adverse events in sub-cutaneous allergy immunotherapy. Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology Jan. 20, 2014.
19 American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Allergy Facts. ACAAI.org.
20 AAAAI. Increasing Rates of Allergies and Asthma. AAAAI.org.