Carmel member Maureen Estes found out just how serious allergies to animals can be when her son, Alex, was rushed to the ER after suffering a particularly violent reaction.
“He went over to a friend’s house and they had a dog,” Maureen says. “He couldn’t breathe. His airways closed. It was scary.”
For Alex, who’s 19, it’s another reminder of how his animal allergies control his life, his mom says: “He wants to go places, but people are going to have pets.”
Of the 1,631 members who took a recent online poll, 27 percent say either they or someone in their immediate family has an allergy to a pet in their home. Nationally, about 10 percent of the population is allergic to house pets, says the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Cats are the most common culprit for pet allergies, the ACAAI reports, while others include dogs, hamsters, rabbits, birds and mice.
A-rated Dr. Mark Holbreich of Allergy and Asthma Consultants in Nora says reactions vary. “Itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing are common,” says the board-certified allergist. “Sometimes when a person has direct contact with an animal, they develop a rash.” Other reactions include coughing, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, and occasionally, lowered blood pressure.
While allergists and immunologists say it’s not ideal to live with a pet you’re allergic to, there are treatment options including medication, allergy shots and lifestyle changes. “This isn’t an all or nothing process,” says Dr. Steven Wise of A-rated Allergy Partners of Central Indiana, which has multiple offices. “Even partial avoidance can help. Measures such as washing hands and areas of contact after holding a pet may give some relief.”
Most animal-related allergens are contained in skin and hair follicles, as well as saliva, so sensitive people most commonly react when they breathe in animal dander, touch an animal or are licked by one. However, allergies to animals go beyond direct contact with a pet in the home. Even going to an animal-free zone such as work can be risky because other employees with pets may carry those allergens on their clothes. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the U.S. pet population exceeds 100 million, the equivalent of about four pets for every 10 people. The concentration of house pets, combined with well-insulated buildings, have increased humans’ exposure to pet allergens
Wise says allergies in general are increasing. “As the incidence of allergic disease grows, so does the number of people reacting to animals,” he says. Christine Jeschke, chief operations officer at the A-rated Humane Society of Indianapolis, says approximately 18,000 animals are surrendered to shelters in Indy every year. “The surrender rate [remains] consistent, but we’re seeing an increase of people citing [pet allergies],” she says. “Do your research before selecting a pet.” She suggests testing your tolerance — or reaction — prior to adopting by interacting with different types of pets, spending time with a friend’s animal or visiting shelters.
If you do have a reaction to a pet, the best therapy is avoidance, says highly rated Dr. Frederick Leickly, an IU professor and the director of allergy clinical services for Riley Hospital for Children. “It’s very difficult telling families to get rid of a much-loved family animal. They’d rather get rid of me before their pet — and in some cases you might wonder if they’d get rid of their child before the family cat,” he says with a laugh. About 13 percent of members who took our online poll say they refused to remove pets from their home, despite a doctor’s recommendation. “In these cases ... you may be able to manage the reaction or explore options to make it work,” Leickly says, but don’t believe in allergy-friendly pet claims. “The hypoallergenic pet is an urban myth,” he says, because all pets with fur produce dander.
However, Leickly says lifestyle changes may help limit allergens: “You should keep the pet out of the child’s bedroom and not let it sleep in the same bed. Definitely invest in hypoallergenic protectors for pillows and bedding. Also, think about getting rid of carpets, where dander settles, and replacing them with hardwood floors or laminate.”
Some members who took our poll say they’re doing just that, along with replacing upholstered furniture, moving pets outside and restricting indoor access to certain areas. Others clean their home more often and use HEPA air filters in heating and cooling systems and vacuums.
Maureen says her son Alex — who’s not only allergic to dogs, but also cats and horses — needed to take even more steps to help his pet allergies. “He’ll go over to a house where someone has a dog or a cat and [they] forget to mention it,” she says, and he has a reaction. “Or they’ll have housesat an animal recently and just didn’t think the dander would still be in the air.” Alex ended up seeing Holbreich for immunotherapy treatment, and after testing was put on a course of allergy shots. “They’re a unique allergy vaccine that we create in our lab,” Holbreich says.
The treatment consists of one or more weekly injections of a vaccine made up of the things the individual is allergic to with patients receiving increasing concentrations of the vaccine at each office visit. After about six months, injections are given every four weeks. Holbreich notes these shots are one of the most effective ways to reduce reactions and help to build a person’s tolerance to allergies, but requires patients to make a three- to five-year commitment.
Allergy shots vary widely in cost, based on the number you’ll receive, the type of allergies you have and the provider you see, but can range from about $800 to $3,000 per year. Insurance may also cover some of the cost, depending on the plan. “For a course of shots over five years, the cost is reasonable,” Holbreich says. “It will cost less
than buying medication at the store.”
Maureen says the injections have helped Alex. “It’s much better now — better than it’s ever been,” she says. “However, [Alex] still can’t tolerate prolonged exposure and still has flare-ups.” To manage those flare-ups, which restrict his breathing, Alex carries an Atarax inhaler that costs about $60 a month out of pocket.
Despite the positive results of allergy shots, many prefer to manage their symptoms through over-the-counter medication. An American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology study reveals only one-out-of-three people with allergies would even consider trying allergy shots. That may be because they take a long time to work. “The downside is the need to get the injections for several years,” Wise explains. Also, after finishing allergy shots, symptoms may reappear years after. Other options include over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants and nasal steroids.
Wise explains many sufferers prefer these options because they’re more convenient, upfront costs appear lower and they deliver relief fast. He cautions against using them as a long-term solution, and notes that accumulated costs will often exceed those of allergy shots over time. “Over-the-counter medicines can help lessen symptoms, but they’re not curative,” Wise says. “Remember, the allergic reaction is still occurring, but the effects are being partially controlled. If there is enough exposure, then the symptoms will break through.”
Fishers member Lauren Drew, 27, a devoted animal lover, used a combination of shots and over-the-counter medications to reduce her own lifelong reactions, which started at age 5. “I’m a big cat lover,” says Lauren, who’s been seeing Holbreich for her allergies since she was a child. “I think I drove Dr. Holbreich crazy because I’m nuts about them and wouldn’t give them up.”
For years, she took over-the-counter medication. “I was popping Claritin and Zyrtec like candy,” Lauren says. She began getting allergy shots at 18, and treatment lasted about five years. The treatment paid off, she says. “I can go out now and don’t have to worry. [My cat] sleeps on my pillow at night. That’s priceless to me. I can live
a normal life now.”