New Immunotherapy Tablet for Grass Allergy: Phoenix Residents Should Read the Fine Print

Last month, the Allergenic Products Advisory Committee  of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted to approve two sublingual allergy immunotherapy  products.  The FDA will need to give final approval, but this typically follows the advice of its advisory committees.   Both products contain a mixture of pollen from several different grasses commonly found in Europe and the United States.

These would be the first FDA-approved forms of sublingual allergy immunotherapy available in the US.  This is good news because the current use of sublingual immunotherapy is unregulated and therefore of undetermined safety and efficacy. And (often of more importance to patients) sublingual immunotherapy is not covered by insurance.

The bad news is that Arizona is not like Europe (at least from an allergy point of view), nor is it like most of the United States either.  It’s hot and dry. Very hot and dry!  Too hot and too dry for most grasses to survive without constant watering making them too expensive to grow.  The exception to this is Bermuda grass.  Bermuda grass is a heat and drought tolerant grass that has become THE landscaping grass in Arizona.  If it is green and growing on the ground in Arizona during the summer it is Bermuda grass.

Bermuda grass is also very allergenic.  It’s affect on allergy sufferers is so great that a Phoenix ordinance requires that grass lawns and fields be cut short to limit pollen production.   The majority (if not all) of the school playgrounds and sports fields in Phoenix are planted in Bermuda grass which means that kids are particularly vulnerable to grass pollen allergy.   It causes nasal and eye allergy symptoms late spring through fall and is often the trigger for severe allergic asthma attacks.

As important as Bermuda grass is for Arizona allergies, the new grass immunotherapy tablets do not contain Bermuda grass.  Many grasses are grouped into families that produce what are called “cross reacting” allergens.  In other words, even thought the grasses have different names and appearance, our immune system reacts to the pollen as though they were from the same, or very similar, plant.   Bermuda grass however does not have any important close cousins, so none of the pollen in the new grass tablets will help to alleviate symptoms causes by Bermuda grass.

And so. Good news:  A grass pollen tablet for allergies may be approved by the FDA.  The bad news:  It will not benefit you if you live in Arizona.

Progress in the Treatment of Food Allergy

Immunotherapy is a form of treatment in which small amounts an allergen (pollen, mold, or animal dander) is given to an allergic patient in slowly increasing doses to induce long-lasting tolerance to that allergen.  Immunotherapy is very effective in reducing allergy symptoms and is the closest treatment that we have to a cure. The trick is to be able to safely deliver a substance that a patient is very allergic to (usually a protein) in a manner that allows the immune system time to develop a protective tolerance response without triggering an allergic reaction.  This is routinely accomplished with allergy shots for airborne allergens.  Unfortunately, efforts to treat life-threatening food allergy with immunotherapy without triggering a severe and possible fatal allergic reaction have had limited success.

One of the goals of research efforts in food allergy has been to develop a food look-alike protein – one that can stimulate an effective tolerance response to a food but without the ability to trigger an allergic reaction.   Somewhat like a novice sword fighter  using wooden swords to train until he is experienced enough to handle the real thing.

Recently researchers at The Centre for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics in Spain have developed three hypoallergenic variants of the protein most commonly responsible for allergic reactions to peach (Pru p 3).  Peach is the most common food allergy in Spain and Mediterranean region.   The hope is that these proteins can be used safely as a vaccine in specific immunotherapy to treat patients with allergy to peach for whom the only currently available treatment is life long avoidance.

When You Should Give In To Your Craving for a Snickers Bar

For the past decade, pediatricians have recommended avoiding peanuts and tree nuts during pregnancy because of the concern that exposure to an allergen at this time might increase the likelihood of the baby having a food allergy, particularly if there is a strong family history of nut allergy.  In spite of these recommendations, not only did the prevalence of allergies fail to decline, but significantly increased during this period, with reported cases of nut allergy tripling from 1997 to 2010   Noting this disturbing trend, in 2008 the American Academy of Pediatricians withdrew their recommendation to avoid any foods during pregnancy to prevent food allergy.

And now, a recent study from Boston Children’s Hospital suggests that eating nuts during pregnancy can actually decrease the risk of allergy in their children.  This study found that the children of moms who ate five or more servings of peanuts and tree nuts a week were less likely to develop allergies to these foods than kids whose mothers ate less than one serving a month.   Pregnant mothers who are allergic to nuts, of course, should continue to avoid these foods.

The results of this study highlights a principle that has become clearer over the past several years as more research is directed at the growing problem of food allergy: withholding exposure to an allergen, particularly in young  children may end up causing the problem that we are trying to prevent.

Is it Allergy or a Cold?

It’s winter and  the season for runny, stuffy noses, coughing and hacking, and scratchy, sore throats – but not necessarily from allergies.  A question that comes up a lot this time of year is  how to tell the difference between allergies, a sinus infection, and a cold? This is, of course a trick question because a cold IS a sinus infection, technically speaking.  Most cold viruses not only affect the nose and throat but also the sinuses.  What about telling the difference between an allergy attack and an infection?  This can be a challenge at times but there are clues. Typically, allergies cause more itching and rarely pain and mucous is usually clear.  With an upper respiratory infection, drainage can be discolored, the throat can be raw and sore, and you may have a fever.   Also, allergies are not contagious and the fact that 70% of your school or office is home sick with the very same awful symptoms you just came down with might suggest a bug rather than a pollen problem.

This time of year, the primary allergen in the air is pollen from evergreen trees such as Juniper.   So knowing what you are allergic can help us interpret your symptoms.  For example if you are not allergic to Juniper, then respiratory symptoms during the winter are not likely to be allergy related, unless of course your aunt came to visit for christmas and brought her six cats.

You might ask: If it is not an allergy but an infection, then an antibiotic is needed to get better right? Antibiotics are one of the most important discoveries of our modern era.  They have saved millions of lives and turned the nightmare of a devastating infection in a child to a routine affair easily treated by a prescription from the family doctor.  But as miraculous as antibiotics are, they are worthless in the treatment of viral infections, and viral infections are the most common cause of respiratory infection in children and adults.

This however, has not stopped antibiotics from being routinely prescribed for cold viruses.  But how do we know if it is a cold virus and not a bacterial infection and one that would respond to an antibiotic and make me feel better in hours rather than days?  For the most part, a cold causes a lot of uncomfortable symptoms for the first 2-3 days, symptoms plateau around day 4-5, and then slowly improve, usually resolving completely by day 7-10. A cold may lead to a bacterial sinus infection but this rarely occurs in the first week of symptoms. Therefore, the major consensus guidelines for doctors suggest that antibiotics are rarely helpful and not recommended for most patients with typical cases of upper respiratory infection lasting less than 4 weeks.

So how successful are prescribers at following these guidelines? A recent study reported in The Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology (JACI),  reviewed the overall national use of antibiotics for adults with sinus infections.  Study data were taken from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 2006-2010, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and included antibiotic prescriptions associated with outpatient visits made by adults diagnosed with acute or chronic sinusitis. Over the five year study period, sinus infections  accounted for 11% of all primary diagnoses for ambulatory care visits  for which  antibiotics were  prescribed, more than any other diagnosis.  There were 21.4 million estimated visits associated with a primary diagnosis of acute sinus infection, and 47.9 million estimated visits associated with a primary diagnosis of chronic sinus infection.

Antibiotics were prescribed in 86% of acute sinusitis cases, in spite of established clinical practice guidelines recommending against the use of antibiotics for typical acute sinus infections.

No one wants to be sick and when we are ill with a cold we want to get better as soon as possible.  And although the approach: ”better to be safe than sorry and take an antibiotic at the first sign of symptoms rather than wait several weeks to see if it will get better on it’s own” may seem reasonable,  the potential consequences associated with excessive and unjustified use of antibiotics, including allergic reactions, severe adverse side effects, unnecessary costs, and increasing bacterial resistance, cannot be justified.

Both physicians, who want to help and may be afraid to say no, and patients, who may have unrealistic expectations, are to blame for the growing problem of inappropriate antibiotic use.   However, while most of us have grown up in the age of wonder drugs, we are now at risk of entering a new and very scary time called “the post antibiotic era”.    A place were no pill or shot will save us from foes that we have long thought vanquished.

So if you have a cold:  get plenty of rest, avoid public places when possible so that you don’t infect others, and give it time.  If you do not see any improvement in a week or so or if symptoms are getting significantly worse, see your doctor.