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Is It Possible to Adjust to Allergies?

Repeatedly being exposed to something you’re allergic to might fix the problem — or it might make it way worse

I’ve always assumed that I could “adjust” to my pet allergies. I grew up with cats and a dog, and I think I survived that just fine. Then again, maybe I took way more Benadryl than I remember. 

None of this would be of much consequence, except that I am now living with two cats again. After a few weeks of this, I’m still just as sneezy and itchy as I was on the first night with them. So… was I wrong?

Maybe, maybe not. According to Purvi Parikh, an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, “the evidence is kind of mixed.” “Some people find that when they’re living with an allergen, they become ‘immune’ to it in a way — their immune system becomes used to it and won’t react as strongly,” she explains. “But the opposite can occur, too, where someone’s allergy symptoms get worse from living with an allergen.”

Exactly what determines how someone will react to prolonged exposure to an allergen isn’t entirely clear. “We have no good way of knowing who is going to get better versus who is going to get worse. It’s kind of 50/50, but the whole idea of adjusting to an allergen is the principle behind allergy shots and allergy desensitization,“ says Parikh. “Allergy specialists treat people by giving them diluted doses of what they’re allergic to, and the idea is that eventually, someone becomes tolerant. It’s a controlled setting, so it’s easier for us to figure out the appropriate dosing, whereas when you’re living with a pet, you can’t really control the dose of cat allergen you’re getting on a daily basis.”

So, you can indeed form an immunity toward something you were previously allergic to. In fact, as Parikh explained, this is how many allergies are treated in medical settings.  In the case of pets, though, that immunity might only apply to that specific pet. That is, I may develop an immunity toward Tokyo and Astrid (the cats I’m now living with), but this immunity wouldn’t necessarily extend to all cats. But because cat allergies are typically caused by a specific protein carried by all cats, it is possible that it would apply to the whole species. 

In any event, my symptoms are mild enough that I can live with it and take Benadryl as needed. However, Parikh recommends that anyone in this type of situation pay careful attention to their symptoms, and explore other treatment options if needed. “Allergies are the most common cause of asthma,” says Parikh. “There are instances where you can develop breathing problems and asthma [from being exposed to allergens], and that can be more dangerous. For that, you want to make sure you’re on the appropriate medications.”

Hopefully, I’ll be one of the lucky ones who gets better with time. Potentially, though, my asthma will worsen enough that I need treatment. Either way, for other people in similar situations, it’s probably worth consulting with a doctor, just to be safe.