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For people who are extremely allergic to bees, ants, wasps, and other insects, allergic desensitization treatment is a must. But taking a course of "allergy shots" often has a beneficial effect on mental health, researchers say.

Allergies can drain your energy and make you feel miserable. For some people, just thinking about the onset of allergy season is depressing. Maybe it should not come as a surprise, then, that researchers have found that immunotherapy, designed to prevent life-threatening, anaphylactic allergic reactions in people who have severe allergies, should decrease anxiety and depression.

According to a paper presented in late 2013 at the annual American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting, allergy shots significantly improve quality of life for insect allergy sufferers. The series of injections with larger and larger amounts of insect allergens is the only known way to modify the severity of the response to an insect's sting or bite. These desensitization therapies may even save the lives of people who are allergic. Immunologists attending the meeting reported their findings for patients who received treatment for ant, bee, and wasp allergies.

Just How Common Are Severe Insect Allergies?

Immunologists estimate that, in the United States, about 15% of the population is "allergic" enough to be at risk of a severe, life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. Insect bites are not the only potential causes of severe allergic reactions. A study sponsored by the Mayo Clinic found that the most common cause of anaphylaxis was food, typically peanuts or shellfish, accounting for about 33% of all fast-acting, severe allergies. Insect bites accounted for about 19% of all reported cases of anaphylaxis, and antibiotics for slightly fewer. Considerably fewer Europeans but about as many Australians have severe reactions to insect bites and stings as Americans.

Insect allergies are most common in babies between 12 and 18 months old, and they are more common in children under 18 than in adults. Among adults, allergic sensitivity seems to wane around the age of 20 and resume after the age of 50.

What Is "Severe" About Severe Insect Allergies?

The symptoms of an anaphylactic allergic reaction to an insect bite or sting are, to say the least, obvious and miserable. These allergic reactions affect multiple organ systems at the same time.

The skin is almost always involved in an anaphylactic reaction. There may be hives, swelling, redness, itching, and inflammation. The eyelids may swell shut over the eyes, and there may be massive swelling and redness over the point of the insect sting.

People having severe reactions to insect stings often have upper respiratory edema, that is, swelling in the bronchial passages. They may have difficulty taking a breath. Even gasping may not be possible. Hypoxia, that is, lowered bloodstream oxygen levels, may lead to dizziness, confusion, and loss of consciousness.

Chest pain may be caused by difficulty breathing, or in rare cases the strain on the cardiovascular system may precipitate a heart attack. Making matters even worse, the massive release of histamine caused by the bug bite can trigger nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and when these do not occur, there can be a strange, metallic taste in the mouth. There is often a sense of impending doom. Symptoms may take as long as 30 minutes to develop, but sometimes occur in as little as 30 seconds after the bite or sting.

Even after a severe allergy is treated, that sense of impending doom may not easily go away. It may lead to anxiety and depression. But with the treatment of insect of allergy, the gloom and doom gradually lift.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) (2013, November 8). Allergic to insect stings: Allergy shots decrease anxiety, depression. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 19, 2014, from­ /releases/2013/11/131108090235.htm
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