Allergies can cause a range of symptoms, from sniffling and itchy eyes to life-threatening reactions. Basically, an allergy is the body’s immune response in overdrive. Instead of ignoring a substance that is harmless to most people, the body recognizes it as a threat and responds accordingly. Symptom control may require allergy testing.
When Allergy Testing is Needed
For most people, allergy symptoms are little more than an annoyance. Seasonal hay fever causes sneezing, sniffling and itchy eyes. Over the counter medication may relieve these problems. If symptoms persist or are severe, the primary care physician may make a referral to an allergist.
Allergists are pediatricians or internists with at least 2 additional years of specialized training. They are well qualified to perform allergy testing, interpret the results, and provide appropriate and safe treatment to reduce symptoms.
Many people with allergies suffer needlessly and risk additional health problems, such as asthma or respiratory illnesses. With good treatment, the symptoms will be reduced and the patient can be much more healthy and comfortable.
Persistent and significant allergies require careful management. By pinpointing the substances that are causing the reaction, the doctor can help to alleviate suffering and improve health. More significant allergic symptoms include difficulty with breathing, wheezing, chest congestion, hives, severe reactions to insect stings, and anaphyllaxis.
Anaphyllaxis is an extreme allergic reaction that can affect more than one body system at the same time. This requires emergency medical treatment. Symptoms include serious breathing problems, swelling, hives, pain or nausea, and shock. Call an ambulance immediately if an anaphyllactic reaction is suspected.
To gain control over symptoms, treatment is provided based on the results of allergy testing. Four different types of tests are used by allergists to determine the best course of treatment. When testing is recommended, patients should ask questions about the risks and possible benefits of testing and treatment. Only then will they be able to make an informed decision.
This is the most common type of testing performed by allergists. Based on the symptoms the patient is having, the doctor chooses extracts for testing. The serum contains minute particles of allergens. A tiny prick is made in the surface of the skin, and the extract is applied. Within 15 minutes, a bit of redness or swelling appears if the patient is allergic to the substance. If not, the skin appears normal.
In some cases, the individual will not react to the skin prick test. If the doctor still suspects an allergy, an intradermal test may be used. A tiny amount of extract is injected just below the surface of the skin. This often pinpoints the source of the patient’s suffering when a skin prick test fails.
When food or medication allergies are suspected, the doctor may order a challenge test. This requires either inhaling or swallowing the test allergen. Doctors proceed with caution in this type of test because it is more likely to provoke a severe reaction.
A blood test may be used if the allergist believes skin testing would not be safe, or in the rare case that a patient is allergic to the serum used in allergy testing. It could also be used for a person who is taking certain medications. Results take longer to obtain, but the procedure carries no risk.
Benefits of Allergy Testing
Appropriate testing can guide the physician in providing effective treatment that will reduce the symptoms of allergies. This may include allergy shots, or immunotherapy, in which a miniscule amount of allergen is injected so that the body learns to ignore the normally harmless substance that is causing the reaction. The process requires a long period of time and consistent treatment.
Avoiding exposure to the allergen is another option that should be pursued. If allergic to pollen, the patient may need to stay indoors when the plants causing the trouble are in bloom. Most people with allergies are sensitive to dust mites, which are present in any home. Symptoms can be reduced by eliminating carpet and upholstery in the bedroom and keeping dust to a minimum.
Usually, a combination of medication, shots and avoidance to exposure will be the best approach in treating a significant allergy. Together with the physician, patients need to plan the measures to take that will result in fewer symptoms and less illness. Each individual is unique and reacts differently to treatment. Patience and good communication will help the doctor/patient team monitor progress and adjust their approach.
Keeping an allergy diary is a good adjunct to testing and treatment. This record will help to pinpoint the sources of trouble and the effectiveness of treatment. By working with the physician, patients can increase their benefit from medical care.
Not everyone needs or would benefit from allergy testing. Each case must be considered individually by a qualified allergist in consultation with the patient. This is one of the many useful tools available to allergists in providing care.