Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can effectively treat the symptoms of seasonal allergies, according to a study published in Allergy (2004;59:953–60).

Allergies are overreactions of the immune system to things in the environment, such as dust, pollen, animal dander, and foods. When an allergic person’s immune system is triggered by an allergen, it causes some degree of inflammation. The severity of an allergic reaction can take the form of simple itching eyes, sneezing, and runny nose (rhinitis); skin reactions such as eczema or hives; and even life-threatening constriction of the airways.

Increasing numbers of people suffer from allergies. The prevalence of allergic rhinitis, for example, is now estimated to be between 10 and 20% of the population in developed countries. Allergic rhinitis and mild allergy symptoms are usually treated with antihistamine or decongestant medicines and sometimes with steroid medicines, but these often cause unwanted and even harmful side effects.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) includes Chinese herbal medicine, tai chi (movement and meditation practice), and acupuncture. TCM has been used to treat allergies for hundreds of years, and the results of several studies suggest that TCM therapies can be helpful for allergic conditions such as asthma, eczema, and food allergies. Both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine have been shown to help people with allergic rhinitis. Although these therapies are traditionally used together, their combined effect has not been studied scientifically.

In the current study, 52 people with allergic rhinitis were randomly assigned to receive either weekly acupuncture sessions and Chinese herbal medicine three times per day or placebo (sham acupuncture, in which the needles are placed at nonacupuncture points, and nonspecific herbs) for six weeks. The people receiving treatment were given two herbal medicine formulas: one was a basic formula for allergies and the other was created for each individual, based on the person’s TCM diagnosis. All herbs were used in the form of tea made from dried herbs. Participants answered questionnaires about their allergy symptoms at the beginning of the study and at the end of each week; a daily symptom diary was also used to monitor symptoms.

At the end of the study, allergy severity in people receiving treatment was significantly lower than in those receiving placebo. Nearly 85% of those in the TCM group improved while improvement was noted in only 40% of those getting placebo. Furthermore, twice as many in the TCM group as in the placebo group had no symptoms or mild symptoms at the end of the study.

The results of this study suggest that a TCM protocol involving both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can benefit people with allergic rhinitis

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