One of my many attractive qualities is that I suffer from allergic rhinitis, which is more commonly referred to as just “allergies”. Itchy, watery eyes and an itchy, runny nose are pretty much guaranteed if I am not careful.
I wasn’t always this way. At least I don’t think so.
Somewhere in my early 20’s, I started to notice that I sneezed an awful lot, even when I wasn’t sick. And my nose was runny almost all the time. These symptoms got worse in the springtime, when my sinuses would get stuffy and my eyes would be more red-rimmed than usual.
Back then I had allergy testing to find out what I was allergic to. Turns out it was a lot of things. Birch tree pollen, animal dander and dust, to name a few. At that time, there was an option to get allergy shots, but you had to go to the doctor every week to get the shot.
Um, no thanks.
Instead, I opted to try a prescription nasal spray, and over-the-counter allergy medicines. I tried a lot of things over the years, including herbal remedies (tablets of tree pollen, anyone?) and getting quite intimate with the neti pot before finally settled on Claritin.
Side note – the neti pot. That thing deserves a post of it’s own. Maybe I’ll even do a video! Just kidding – that’d be gross.
Anyway, the Claritin worked pretty well, although if I were to pet a cat and then touch my eyes or nose, I would immediately be stricken with a relentless itch and redness for hours afterward.
A couple of years ago my allergies seemed to get even worse. The sinus congestion got so bad that it affected my hearing, if you can believe that. On the advice of my ENT, I switched to Claritin D (D = decongestant) and after a few days, my head began to clear out and I could hear once again.
So anyway, what this long drawn-out backstory is getting to is that I finally got so irritated with the allergies wreaking havoc in my daily life that I decided to do something about it. I had heard about something called Sublingual Immunotherapy, or SLIT and I wanted to give it a try.
SLIT is an alternative to getting allergy shots. As the name suggests, it involves putting drops under your tongue. You can do this at home, so it eliminates the weekly visits to the doctor for shots. Less doctor visits and no shots? Count me in.
It is not necessarily the cheaper option. At this time, it’s not FDA approved, so it’s not covered by health insurance, whereas allergy shots are. Fortunately, I have an FSA (Flexible Spending Account) through work, so I can put aside money, tax-free, and use it to pay for stuff like this. Each batch costs about $240 and lasts for about 3 months. The process can take up to five years to complete. Still, if it works, it will be worth the price.
So how does one go about getting on this regimen, you ask?
First, I had to get another allergy test, because my previous one was a decade ago. This is important, since the whole point of the immunotherapy is to stimulate your immune system and build a tolerance to the antigens that cause your allergies.
Second, I got a lecture from the allergy nurse about things I should do around my house and in my lifestyle to manage my allergies. Some of this stuff I already knew, like, take a shower and wash your hair before bed if you’ve been in dusty or heavily pollinated situations (i.e. springtime…).
One of the suggestions we acted on right away was to make the bedroom a “clean zone”. We bought a HEPA filter. We also got mattress, box spring, and pillow covers. Since I am allergic to dust, this was key. It was also recommended that we shut the cats out of the bedroom since I am allergic to them too. (Honestly.) However, we do let Autumn sleep with us at night, because otherwise she would sit outside the door and howl, which will drive a person insane in about 10 seconds flat. But during the day she is not allowed to lounge and bathe on the bed like she could in the good old days. We also wash the bedding in super hot water to kill any dust mites that may have wandered into the room uninvited.
So anyway. After I had the allergy test (which was a skin injection test), I had to go back to the doctor to get the results. As he unfurled the scroll upon which all of my allergies were listed, he agreed that it would be wise for me to begin SLIT treatment.
I had to wait a couple of days for the drops to be ready, because they make a special cocktail for each patient. The first batch was called the Escalation Phase. These were diluted versions of the prescription. Each bottle was marked with a colored dot to show the order in which the bottles should be used. By starting out with a little and slowly working up to the full-strength dose, the body would have time to get adjusted to the treatment.
Each bottle would be used for 3 weeks. The first week was just one drop under the tongue. Week two was two drops, and week three was… you guessed it. Then it was on to the next bottle. They gave me a chart to use to keep track of what day I was on and how many drops I should take. I was to make a note if anything weird happened during this time. They also gave me a prescription for an Epi-Pen, to use in the event I had a major reaction. I still carry the Epi-Pen around with me just in case but I have not had to use it.
The only side effects I noticed were on bottle #3. The skin on my neck started flaking and peeling off like I had a sunburn. But this was also the week after I had my hair dyed, so I wasn’t sure whether it was the drops, or a reaction to whatever was in my hair.
Later that same week, I woke up with one eye swollen shut and super puffy. It looked like I’d been punched in the eye! It so happened that this was a week I’d been staying at a hotel for a work event, so again, I wasn’t sure if it was the drops, or the fact that I was sleeping on a hotel mattress with feather pillows near my face. Or that I was having a stress reaction related to my crazy work schedule. The possibilities were endless. (Ok, not really.)
Less than a month after that, I had completed the escalation phase and it was on to the maintenance drops. My first batch of maintenance drops, it turns out, I was overdosing a bit. In my early morning haste, I forgot to look in the mirror and count the drops that were emerging from the little spigot on the bottle like they had instructed me.
Instead, I was just doing three hearty pumps of the liquid into my mouth. By the 7th week, my little bottle was looking pretty low and I was somehow supposed to squeeze another 5 weeks out of it. When I called to reorder, I was reprimanded and told to take it down a notch.
Now I am well into my second maintenance bottle. I can’t say I’ve noticed any miraculous improvement in my allergies, but as spring approaches I should be able to see some difference. I am still using a nasal spray to keep my sinuses cleared (and my ears open). I have tried skipping it for a few days, only to find my head slowly filing up with fog again. I’m keeping my hopes up that eventually I will be able to stop using the sinus spray and not be so easily brought down by a dust bunny or a cat hair or the grains of pollen floating on the wind.