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Many Who Use Prescription Allergy Drugs Don't Need Them

A new study out of Ohio University shows that many people taking prescription allergy medications do not actually need them.

Americans spend an estimated $4.7 billion a year on prescription allergy medications like Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec. Sheryl Szeinbach of Ohio State carried out a study of 246 patients taking the medications and found that fully 65% were simply not allergic. She and other researchers say lack of testing or unreliable skin testing for common allergens such as cats, ragweed, and mold is to blame.

The researchers used the ImmunoCAP allergy blood testing method to test patients' reactions to common external allergens such as animal dander, pollen, and mold. ImmunoCAP tests the reaction of immunoglobulin E --a compound in the immune system--to specific allergens. The compound helps fight off toxins and also triggers allergic reactions.

The researchers support the blood test, saying it's more accurate. Skin testing, on the other hand, involves putting allergens on the skin and pricking it with a needle to monitor reactions. ImmunoCAP paid for the research.

An allergic reaction occurs when pollen or other things in the environment cause cells in the body to release a chemical called histamine. That triggers the inflammation of the nose and the eyes. The anti-allergy drugs block the histamine, but they don't have an effect if there's no allergy. Side effects from these medications are rare. Symptoms such as an itchy, runny nose might be caused by colds, sinus infections, or nasal irritants such as perfumes.

Common symptoms of respiratory allergies are sneezing, wheezing, nasal congestion, coughing, or itchy eyes, mouth, and throat.

Many experts say only skin testing can reveal for sure if a person is truly allergic. The presidents of two national allergy, asthma, and immunology research groups remain unconvinced that blood testing is more accurate. In a joint letter last year, they said skin testing is convenient, less expensive, quickly readable, and can be more accurate.

Study author Sheryl Szeinbach spoke with the Early Show about the findings.

Szeinbach is a professor of pharmacy administration at Ohio State University. She got interested in the topic because she spent an entire year on prescription allergy drugs, and her stuffed nose and irritated eyes never got better. But instead of an allergic reaction, Szeinbach was having a reaction to the chlorine in the pool where she swims every day.

She decided to try to find out how widespread her situation was and found that almost two-thirds of the people she studied were taking medications needlessly. Of the study findings, Szeinbach says, "We expected it to be somewhat high but not quite that high."

There are many other reasons for allergy-like symptoms. The common cold, sinusitis, and chemicals in the environment can all cause symptoms similar to allergies. With the wrong diagnosis, people can waste amuch as $80 a month for the prescription drugs and miss out on a diagnosis of the real cause.

She says part of the problem is that the commonly used skin test is not always that reliable. Although many allergists swear by them, her findings show that there are a lot of inaccurate diagnoses.

One reason the problem is so large might be the patients themselves. It is often they who demand the drugs, sometimes influenced by marketing by pharmaceutical companies. Patients see ads on television or billboards and want the medication. Another reason may be that physicians who don't specialize in allergies are treating them.

Szeinbach believes more use should be made of the blood test. A blood test can be used by general physicians who don't specialize in allergies. Allergy patients should be referred to doctors who specialize in the area, but if the problem persists after skin testing, diagnosis, and treatment, patients should ask about the blood test to confirm the diagnosis.
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