Alternative Allergy Treatments

Alternative Allergy Treatments


Alternative allergy treatments are nontraditional allergy therapies – sometimes referred to as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) – that proponents contend deliver relief from allergy symptoms.

Many people turn to alternative treatments to get away from expensive prescription medicines, or to treat symptoms that have proved resistant to established medical treatments.

However, most medical experts are skeptical of the claims made by proponents of alternative allergy treatments. Before any treatment or procedure is accepted as scientifically valid, it must undergo rigorous testing, clinical trials and peer review. Alternative treatments generally have not met these standards, and many rely on anecdotal claims of success on the part of physicians and patients.

Therefore, most medical experts urge patients to avoid alternative therapies in the absence of scientific proof confirming the effectiveness and safety of these treatments. If a physician recommends an alternative treatment, the patient should get a second opinion from a board–certified allergist/immunologist.

About alternative allergy treatments

Alternative allergy treatments include therapies that fall outside the boundaries of traditional allergy medicine. Some of these treatments – such as homeopathy, acupuncture, herbs and dietary supplements, and hypnosis – are familiar to the general public. Other treatments are more obscure.

According to a 2002 study conducted by the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than one-third of adults in the United States use alternative treatments for health.

Practitioners of alternative allergy treatments use these therapies to treat allergic rhinitis, food allergies, asthma and other well-established immune system disorders. However, some proponents of alternative allergy treatments also treat disorders tied to substances not traditionally associated with allergic reactions. These include:

  • Various chemicals found in solvents, paints and perfumes

  • Electromagnetic radiation from power lines and electronic devices

  • Food additives, including dyes and preservatives

  • Microorganisms such as yeast (Candida albicans)

  • Hormones in the body, especially progesterone

Most medical experts are skeptical of the value of alternative allergy treatments in the absence of scientific proof that these treatments are safe and effective. Before any treatment or procedure is accepted as scientifically valid, it must undergo rigorous testing and clinical trials. Alternative treatments generally have not met these standards, and instead rely on anecdotal claims of success on the part of physicians and patients.

In addition, many medical experts reject some of the standard claims made by alternative-treatment proponents, such as the notion that yeasts and toxins are true allergens. Though these experts acknowledge evidence that some of these substances cause physiological changes in people, none trigger the immune system overreaction that is the basis for an allergic reaction.

Despite such skepticism, millions of people suffering with allergies turn to alternative allergy treatments each year, sometimes on the recommendation from a physician. If a physician recommends an alternative treatment, the patient should seek a second opinion from a board-certified allergist/immunologist.

Types and differences

Many healthcare experts believe that alternative allergy treatments are unlikely to help relieve allergy symptoms, and may even make symptoms worse. Patients should discuss any alternative tests or therapies they are considering with a board-certified allergist/immunologist.

Alternative allergy treatments that may be of questionable value include:

  • Hypnosis. An induced form of deep relaxation in which a patient is susceptible to suggestions from the practitioner. Though this is unlikely to cure allergy symptoms, a suggestion to clean up dust regularly or to avoid chocolate may help those suffering from allergies to practice avoidance.

  • Acupuncture and acupressure. Some claim that these ancient Chinese techniques can effectively treat symptoms of allergies and asthma. During acupuncture, thin, wire needles are used to stimulate certain points on the body. In acupressure, pressure from fingers or devices is substituted for needles.

    Many patients report reduced symptoms and need for medicine after this therapy, and some studies show that people do have lower levels of allergy-related antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE) in their blood after this therapy. Additional studies have suggested that acupuncture may be effective at treating allergic rhinitis (hay fever). However, the therapy has not been submitted to rigorous testing, and more definitive research is needed before the practice is adopted by the wider medical community.

  • Elimination diets. When performed under the direction of a physician, elimination diets are a legitimate allergy treatment used to identify foods that may cause allergic reactions in an individual. However, there are a number of non-medical practitioners who may offer this therapy as an “alternative” treatment. Attempting to practice this treatment without physician oversight and involvement may be ineffective and even dangerous. Patients who begin an elimination diet are at risk for losing key nutrients when they remove certain foods from their diet. In addition, individuals that consume a food allergen may experience anaphylaxis, a rare, severe allergic reaction that can interfere with a person’s ability to breathe or lead to shock.

  • Herbs and dietary supplements. One of the most popular alternative treatments, these are mostly derived from plant sources (as are about half of standard prescription drugs). Proponents often suggest using these as a substitute for various medicines. There is no evidence that these supplements work better than prescription drugs or allergy shots (immunotherapy), and some (such as ephedra) have been shown to be extremely harmful. Herbs and supplements can also have dangerous interactions with prescription drugs.

    For these reasons, most in the healthcare community urge patients to stay away from herbs and supplements and instead stick to proven prescription medicines. It is important to remember that herbal supplements are, in fact, drugs in a different form that are unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA cannot guarantee the claims made by the manufacturer, or that a product actually contains the active compound in the quality and amount necessary to treat a condition. Herbs and supplements that may be promoted as allergy treatments include:

    • Bitter orange (citrus aurantium). As a natural extract, bitter orange is on the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list. However, this substance is similar to ephedra and therefore may pose similar health risks when used in supplements or herbal remedies.

    • Butterbur. Extracts of this plant are believed to relieve hay fever symptoms.

    • Bromelain. Derived from pineapples, this enzyme is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties.

    • Country mallow. A chemical stimulant found in some plants that is similar to ephedra and therefore may pose similar health risks.

    • Echinacea. An herb believed to have anti-inflammatory and immune system boosting properties. However, echinacea is a member of the ragweed family and some believe it is more likely to trigger symptoms than to prevent them. 

    • Ephedra (ma huang). A naturally occurring substance found in plants that provides the basis for the bronchodilator medication ephedrine. Once a common dietary supplement, ephedra was banned by the FDA in February 2004. The dangers of ephedra have been well-documented, including an increased risk of heart attacks and sudden cardiac death.

    • Evening primrose. Oil is extracted from the seed of this plant to treat a number of conditions, including skin rashes and hives related to allergies.

    • Grape seed extract. A substance derived from the seeds or skins of grapes that is believed to have natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties.

    • Pycnogenol. An extract of maritime pine trees that is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.

    • Quercitin. A substance found in some fruit and plants that is believed to have properties that enhance skin’s elasticity and inhibit allergic reactions. It is promoted as a treatment for sinus reactions, hay fever (allergic rhinitis), skin conditions and asthma.

    • Spirulina. A class of algae that grows in mild to hot climates throughout the world. Though primarily promoted as a weight loss supplement (it has not been proven effective), it may also have antihistamine properties.

    • Stinging nettle. A supplement made from the stinging nettle plant, which is similar to poison ivy. It is promoted as a treatment for hay fever and skin conditions such as eczema.

    • Thymus extract. An extract produced by the thymus gland, usually of young cows. Though it is promoted as an allergy reliever, some also believe that this extract can help in preventing the development of allergic conditions.

    • Vitamin C. Some suggest that a daily dose of 1,000 to 4,000 milligrams should reduce the severity of sinus stuffiness and runny nose.

Alternative allergy treatments considered to be completely without merit by the general medical community include:

  • Homeopathy. Like treatments using allergy shots, homeopathy operates under the principle that exposing a person to a certain amount of an allergen can create a tolerance that eventually eliminates symptoms. However, there are major differences between the two therapies. In immunotherapy, the allergen is injected into the patient in increasingly greater concentrations until a tolerance is established. Conversely, homeopathy pills contain an extremely diluted plant and animal extract that is so small it is virtually undetectable in some cases.

    In addition, the substance in the pill usually is not the allergen itself, but another substance that causes similar symptoms. So, for example, onion extracts are used in hay fever remedies because onions cause the eyes to water and nose to run. Proponents of homeopathy maintain this approach allows patients to flush the allergy from their systems. Although some practitioners claim great success in using homeopathy to treat symptoms, science has not established its effectiveness.

  • Cytotoxic testing. A blood test that supposedly identifies food or inhalant allergies. However, a number of clinic trials have found these tests completely ineffective at diagnosing allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI). Such testing is therefore not recommended.

  • Laser therapy. Often advertised as a way to unblock clogged sinuses, laser therapy has benefits that are likely to be temporary and could trigger long-term side effects. These include scarring and fungus growth, which are likely to cause the patient’s original symptoms to return in a greater degree of severity.

  • Sublingual provocation and neutralization therapy. A combination therapy that supposedly identifies the allergen triggering allergy symptoms and then increases the patient’s tolerance of that allergen. It is unproven and not recommended by the AAAAI. The practitioner takes neutralizing substances – such as extracts of allergens, chemicals and foods – and injects them into the body or places them as drops under the tongue. Dosages are increased until the patient has a reaction. Once a reaction occurs, an allergy is diagnosed, regardless of whether or not an immune system response is involved. Additional doses of the allergen are then administered to “neutralize” the reaction.

    Research has not found such therapy to be effective, and some worry that it can in fact trigger allergy symptoms rather than reduce them. It is important to note that neutralization therapy is different from allergy shots, which have been proven effective in the treatment of a number of allergic conditions.

  • Antifungal and anti-yeast treatments. Designed to treat Candida (yeast) hypersensitivity syndrome, a condition that alternative medicine practitioners contend is a reaction to yeast in the body that normally does not cause trouble for people. These treatments include a diet that excludes foods that contain yeasts, such as breads. Some proponents also exclude sugar from these diets, believing it to be a contributor to yeast growth. Patients sometimes are required to take antifungal drugs, which most healthcare providers discourage because of a risk of liver damage. Most experts agree that there is no evidence to indicate that these treatments are effective.

  • Ayurvedic medicine. Practiced under the theory that impaired digestion creates allergies by allowing toxins to build up in the body. The therapy begins with fasting, and includes a rotating diet and the taking of herbs. Some practitioners also recommend a cleansing process that includes herbal massages, saunas, laxatives and enemas. Healthcare providers particularly warn against one treatment recommended by practitioners – colonic irrigation, which includes a powerful enema that has caused physical injury and even death on occasion.

  • Endpoint titration immunotherapy. The practitioner injects an allergen under the skin to desensitize a patient. This approach frequently works in conventional allergy shots. However, the doses of allergen used in endpoint titration immunotherapy are very low when compared to standard allergy treatments. Most medical experts agree that the doses are far too low to be effective.

  • Enzyme potentiated desensitization. A very low dose of an allergen is mixed with a protein molecule (the enzyme beta-glucuronidase) and injected under the skin. It is somewhat like allergy shot treatment, except a single injection is supposed to last a whole season. Again, this remains medically unproved.

  • Extreme environmental avoidance. Encouraging patients to avoid allergens is a sound treatment in traditional allergy practice. However, alternative practitioners take the practice to extremes, recommending the remodeling of entire homes to protect the patient from various chemical contaminants. Sometimes, a patient may be urged to move to isolated communities away from pollutants, or to wear a mask in public. Most medical experts view such measures as extreme and unnecessary.

Conditions treated

Proponents argue that alternative allergy treatments effectively treat allergic conditions such as allergic rhinitis, food allergies, asthma and other allergies. In addition, some proponents also claim alternative therapies treat a host of illnesses not necessarily recognized by the mainstream medical community. These include:

  • Environmental illness. Associated symptoms include fatigue, headache, nausea, dizziness and disorientation. Foods, food additives and environmental chemicals (such as those in cleaning solvents, paints, gasoline, smoke and perfume) are said to be the main culprit.

  • Candida (yeast) hypersensitivity syndrome. Candida albicans is a fungus that lives inside all humans and is responsible for yeast infections. However, some alternative treatment proponents argue that it also is responsible for allergies, arthritis, cancer and AIDS. Medical experts say there is no basis for this assertion.

  • Allergic toxemia (tension fatigue syndrome). Proponents contend that allergies to multiple substances – especially foods – cause symptoms such as fatigue, headache, abdominal pain, paleness and breathing problems. Again, medical experts say such claims have no basis in science.

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Proponents say sensitivity to food dyes, preservatives and other additives causes this condition. There is no medical evidence to back up this claim.

Tips when purchasing

No patient should seek out alternative allergy treatments without first consulting a physician. There is almost always an established, tested treatment that can best treat a patient’s symptoms. Physicians can also warn patients about potential dangers associated with alternative allergy treatments and monitor any health effects of these treatments.

Patients themselves should be very skeptical of treatments that sound exotic or unusual, even if they are suggested by a physician. Though most medical doctors are committed to treatments that adhere to rigorous scientific principles, there are some physicians who promote extremely questionable or unproven practices. If a practice sounds strange, or too good to be true, patients should get a second opinion from a board-certified allergist/immunologist.

Patients should remember the following points when searching for an allergy treatment:

  • Beware of practitioners who use pseudo-medical jargon and who back their claims by citing unnamed “scientific” references.

  • Ignore practitioners who promote supplements or fancy diets as a means of treating allergies.

  • Be wary of anecdotes and testimonials. Rigorous peer review and testing firmly grounded in science are the only valid means of evaluating a treatment.

  • Beware of herbal remedies, which are almost always inferior treatments to synthetic compound drugs. In addition, many herbs contain chemicals that can be dangerous to humans.

  • Be skeptical of products alleged to cure many different diseases or disorders.

  • Ignore claims of “secret” treatments or cures, or practitioners who claim that the medical establishment is trying to suppress certain treatments.

It is extremely unlikely that most physicians will suggest alternative treatments as a substitute for standard medical care. However, patients who decide to seek these treatments should, at the very least, take the following steps:

  • Check into the background, qualifications and competence of any practitioner. Call or write to state and local regulatory agencies that authorize practitioners to perform the therapy or treatment in question. Keep in mind that these standards usually are not as rigorous as those applied to traditional medicine.

  • Talk to patients treated by the practitioner. Get feedback about both the therapy and the person performing it.

  • Talk to the practitioner. Find out about the person’s training, licenses and experience. Ask questions about the practitioner’s approach to treatment and patients. Make sure the practitioner is willing to answer all questions and to talk honestly and openly about the procedure.

  • Pay close attention to important details, such as the cleanliness of the clinic and the condition of tools and other instruments to be used in the procedure.

  • Weigh the costs of the treatment. Find out whether or not insurance reimburses the treatment. Most alternative treatments are not covered by health insurance plans.

  • Involve your physician in the alternative therapy. Most healthcare providers in the mainstream medical community strongly urge their patients not to pursue alternative therapies. This is because there are well-established, clinically proven treatments for the majority of allergic and asthmatic conditions. However, patients who pursue alternative therapies despite such warnings should include their physician in the process. The danger in alternative treatments is not just that they may not be effective. Some may be unsafe for a particular patient. Involving a physician will help to ensure that any alternative therapies are explored with as little risk as possible.

Questions for your doctor

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians. Patients may wish to ask their doctors the following questions regarding alternative allergy treatments:

  1. Are there alternative allergy treatments available for my condition? Do you recommend them?
  2. Can I use alternative allergy treatments in combination with my prescription allergy medication?
  3. Can I use alternative allergy treatments in place of my prescription allergy medication?
  4. Another doctor recommended that I undergo an alternative allergy treatment. What do you know about the treatment?
  5. Have any of your patients reported improvement after the use of an alternative allergy treatment? Might I benefit from these therapies?
  6. Can you recommend a reputable provider of the alternative therapy I am considering?
  7. What risks might the alternative therapy I am considering pose for me?
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