Background: Venom immunotherapy rapidly reduces the risk of a systemic sting reaction in adults from 30% to 70% to less than 2%. When venom immunotherapy is stopped after 5 years or longer, the risk of a systemic sting reaction is 5% to 15% during the first few years after stopping treatment. It is uncertain whether systemic sting reactions will occur more than 5 years after discontinuing venom immunotherapy and whether treatment can be safely stopped in some patients after less than 5 years.
Objective: The purpose of this study is to estimate the risk of systemic reaction to a sting 10 years after discontinuing treatment and the relative risk after 3 years of treatment compared with that after 5 years or more of treatment.
Methods: Among all patients who had venom immunotherapy at our center, we identified 395 patients who stopped treatment: some had dropped out of therapy early (6-24 months), some stopped after 3 to 4 years, and most completed 5 years or more of venom immunotherapy and were advised to stop by the allergist (many as part of our reported studies of discontinuing venom immunotherapy).
Results: Contact was made with 194 patients, including telephone interviews for sting history and requests to visit the office for skin testing and blood sampling. Of these patients, 74 had been included in our original study of patients who had 5 years or more of venom immunotherapy and had sting challenges after 1 to 5 years off venom immunotherapy, as previously reported. Of the 74 in that original study, 61 were reached for this survey, and 30 reported recent stings, with 5 systemic sting reactions. Another 133 patients who had stopped venom immunotherapy were reached: 82 had 5 or more years of venom immunotherapy, 20 had 3 to 4 years of venom immunotherapy, and 31 had less than 2 years of venom immunotherapy. Of 51 patients stung from this group, 27 had 5 or more years of venom immunotherapy (no systemic sting reactions), and 24 had less than 5 years of venom immunotherapy (3 systemic sting reactions). We have now observed a total of 113 patients who had 5 or more years of venom immunotherapy and were stung after stopping. Sixteen (14%) had systemic sting reactions; most were mild, but 4 were severe. Systemic sting reactions occurred in 12 (10.7%) of 112 patients stung in the first 4 years off venom immunotherapy and 5 (10%) of 50 stung more than 5 years off venom immunotherapy. In 4 of 8 patients with current systemic sting reactions, the skin test response was negative, although the venom-IgE response was positive at the previous encounter. All systemic sting reactions were similar in pattern and severity to prevenom immunotherapy reactions in the same patient.
Conclusions: We conclude that the risk of systemic sting reactions when venom immunotherapy is stopped after 5 years or longer remains in the reported range of 5% to 15% in the 5 to 10 years after stopping venom immunotherapy. This risk of systemic sting reactions does not seem to decrease over time, unlike the progressive decline in immunologic markers (skin test and venom-IgE responses). To prospectively assess the risk of recurrent systemic sting reactions, there is a need for sting challenge studies of patients who have been off venom immunotherapy for 5 to 10 years and patients who have stopped venom immunotherapy after just 3 to 4 years treatment.