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Allergies And Allergy Testing: The Basics

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Mar 20, 2019
Last Modified Date: Mar 20, 2019
Published Date: Mar 20, 2019

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Allergy Relief Starts with Knowing What Causes Your Symptoms
Chapter 2: Grown-up Allergies: Adults can Get them Too
Chapter 3: Breathe Easier with an Understanding of Asthma
Chapter 4: Ready for Spring? How to Survive the Allergy Season
Chapter 5: Do you have Summer Allergies? Here’s How to Cope
Chapter 6: Diagnosing Allergies: All about Food Allergy Testing


Allergy Relief Starts with Knowing What Causes Your Symptoms

How Allergen Affects Mast Cells

Allergies are among the most common chronic conditions worldwide. They are caused by abnormal immune responses to certain substances, known as allergens, leading to reactions that can range from uncomfortable symptoms to life-threatening allergic responses. Medical science understands what causes allergies – immune hypersensitivity to allergens – but the underlying reasons that the immune systems of susceptible individuals react to these typically harmless substances remain largely unknown. Allergies can be controlled with appropriate treatment, which begins with identifying the allergens to which an individual is sensitive through allergy testing.

What Causes Allergies

Allergic reactions happen when the body's immune system treats a harmless substance as a hazardous invader, reacting to it as it would a bacteria or virus – by producing antibodies, to defend against it. These antibodies – formed with the first exposure to a particular allergen – attach to mast cells, which are present in all body tissues, but are most prevalent in areas that include the nose, throat, ears, lungs, skin and gastrointestinal tract.

Once those antibodies are in place, they prompt the mast cells to release histamines and other chemicals each time the body is exposed to the allergen. This can cause allergy symptoms that vary according to which areas of the body these chemicals affect. For example, released into the ears, nose and throat, these chemicals can cause itching in the mouth or inflammation that makes swallowing or breathing difficult, while abdominal pain or diarrhea can occur if mast cells in the gastrointestinal tract are affected. Affected mast cells in the skin may result in an itchy skin rash, commonly called hives.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are caused by an abnormal immune system response to proteins in certain foods. A person who is allergic to food-borne allergens may, upon ingesting that allergen, first experience itching in the mouth as they begin eating the food, then as digestion occurs, symptoms like abdominal nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and diarrhea may be experienced. As allergens reach the bloodstream and circulate through the body, some individuals may experience hives or eczema, nasal itching and sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, and/or pulmonary symptoms, such as wheezing or tightness in the chest. In rare cases, individuals with food allergies may develop anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition which can involve swelling of the tongue, throat and/or bronchial passages that inhibits breathing and a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Among the most common food allergies are:

  • Peanuts, which are among the most likely to cause severe reactions, including anaphylaxis.
  • Tree nuts, such as walnuts and pecans
  • Fish
  • Shellfish, including shrimp, lobster, crayfish and crab
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Soy

Environmental Allergies

Pollen is a common trigger of allergic reactionsEnvironmental allergies are reactions to substances in a person's surroundings that are benign to most, but cause an immune system response in sensitive individuals. These may be inhaled allergens or contact allergens.

Airborne particles that enter the nasal and bronchial passages as a person breathes, or inhaled allergens, cause a reaction called allergic rhinitis, which involves symptoms that may include itchy, watery eyes, itchy runny noses, congestion, sneezing, coughing and wheezing. Sensitivity to these airborne particles can also contribute to asthma attacks, sinus conditions, ear problems and sleep disorders in susceptible individuals. Among the most common triggers of this type of allergy are airborne particles that include:

Contact allergens are substances that react with the skin, causing a condition called allergic dermatitis. Symptoms appear with direct contact between an allergen and the skin and may present as skin redness and swelling along with a rash, scaly patches or blisters. Among the most common contact allergens are:

  • Nickel, a metal commonly used in jewelry and clothing fasteners
  • Detergents
  • Soaps
  • Hair dyes
  • Solvents
  • Poison Ivy
  • Poison Oak
  • Ragweed

Allergy Testing and Treatment

Allergy Testing Confirms the Presence of an Allergy

Identifying what causes allergies is the first step to effective treatment, which is done through allergy testing. Blood tests are the most accurate form of allergy testing and are used to detect antibodies produced in response to allergens, indicating an allergic response. Blood testing can be broad spectrum, testing for a range of antibodies, or very specific, focusing on one or two allergens. Skin testing is also common, in which an allergen or a selection of them is applied topically to the skin or injected into it, and the skin evaluated for signs of an allergic response.

While some children may outgrow allergies, they are typically a life-long condition. Avoidance is the most common means of controlling allergies, which means educating a patient on how to avoid allergens that affect them. Medications can be used to control symptoms, and immunotherapy is an option for some patients, which is done by injecting a patient with small amounts of an allergen with the goal of desensitizing the immune system, reducing or eliminating symptoms upon accidental allergen exposure.

Grown-up Allergies: Adults can Get them Too

If you're an adult who never had any problems with allergies as a kid, you might be feeling pretty confident that you're home free by now, but that isn't necessarily so. While there is a popular misconception that allergies are a problem that typically appears during childhood, there are also adult onset allergies are, which allergies most commonly appear in adults and what to do if you suspect that adult onset allergies may be an issue for you.

Adult Onset Allergies: Inhaled Allergens

When it comes to adult onset allergies, new-found sensitivities to inhaled allergens are most common. Common triggers include pollen, pet dander, mold and dust, and allergy symptoms in adults that suffer from allergic rhinitis may include itchy, watery eyes, nasal congestion, sneezing, dark under-eye circles and itching or irritation in the nose, throat of roof of the mouth.

These inhaled allergens can also trigger asthma symptoms in adults that have never before experienced such symptoms. Adult-onset allergic, or extrinsic, asthma occurs as pollen, pet dander, mold, dust, or other inhaled allergens trigger airway obstruction and inflammation, leading to the classic signs of asthma: wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and tightness and congestion in the chest.

Food Allergies in Adults

Shellfish are a Common Adult Food Allergy

Similarly, food allergies, once considered primarily a pediatric problem, are on the rise in people of all ages. While most food allergies are more common in children than in adults, shellfish and fish allergies are exceptions to that rule, with most presenting for the first time in adults.

Other food allergies that may appear in adults include allergies to milk or gluten – a protein found in grains that include wheat, barley and rye.

Diagnosing Adult Onset Allergies

While for most people, allergies are little more than a nuisance, they can trigger life-threatening reactions in some allergy sufferers. For that reason, if you are experiencing symptoms that you suspect may be caused by adult onset allergies, proper diagnosis and treatment is important, and allergy testing is an important step in that process. Your doctor or allergist may use skin tests to detect sensitivities, a method that injects a tiny sample of an allergen into the skin, which will create swelling, redness or rash in allergic individuals. Blood tests are also used to test for allergies. They work by detecting antibodies in the blood that indicate an immune response to specific allergens. In many cases, a combination of these tests may be used to definitively diagnose adult onset allergies. Health Testing Centers offers allergy testing from blood samples.

Breathe Easier with an Understanding of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic disease that affects airways in the lungs, impairing lung function. According to CDC statistics, this disease affects 18.7 million adults in the U.S. Here we'll discuss what asthma is, what causes it and how to reduce asthma risk, as well as useful information for people newly diagnosed with the disease, including how asthma is treated and how to prevent asthma attacks.

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a disease that causes inflammation, or swelling, in the tissues lining the airways of the lungs. That persistent inflammation narrows the airways, making breathing more difficult. Additionally, inflamed tissues are extremely sensitive, prone to further swelling, muscle spasms and excessive mucus production when they are irritated, a reaction commonly known as an asthma attack. These attacks are characterized by worsening asthma symptoms, which may include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Asthma symptoms vary in intensity from one person to another, ranging from mild breathing problems to major or even life-threatening breathing impairment. There is no cure for asthma, but there are treatments to help manage it.

Asthma Causes Lung Inflammation

What Causes Asthma?

The exact causes of asthma are often unknown. However, genetics are thought to play a role, since asthma tends to run in families. Other factors that may contribute to the development of the disease include allergies, some respiratory infections and environmental factors, such as air pollution and other irritants that can cause inflammation and damage in lung tissue.

How to Reduce Asthma Risk

Since the causes are largely unknown, preventing asthma is challenging. There are some things that increase asthma risk. These include smoking, exposure to second-hand smoke, being overweight or obese, exposure to high amounts of exhaust fumes and other types of air pollution, and frequent exposure to chemicals, such as those used on farms, in factories or by hair styling salons, for instance.

Already Diagnosed With Asthma?

Preventing Asthma Attacks is Key to Treatment

Management of asthma is focused on controlling the disease by reducing everyday inflammation, maintaining good lung function and normal activity levels, and preventing asthma attacks. Medications can include long-term control medications, which help reduce airway inflammation and other chronic symptoms, and fast-acting medications – known as rescue inhalers – that help relieve airway constriction quickly when asthma symptoms flare up. Additionally, identifying and avoiding or controlling asthma triggers is key to managing everyday symptoms.

Common Asthma Triggers

In people with asthma, exposure to substances that have no effect on most people can trigger narrowing of the airways, increasing symptoms or provoking an asthma attack. While triggers differ greatly from one asthma sufferer to another, some substances cause problems for many. Among these are:

Allergens – Asthma and allergies often go hand-in-hand. Inhaled allergens are the culprit in many allergy-induced asthma cases, such as pollen, mold spores, dust and dust mites, pet dander and cockroach particles, among others. In rare cases, food allergies can cause asthma symptoms, as can some food preservatives. Given the close association between allergies and asthma, allergy testing is a useful tool in identifying possible asthma triggers.

Irritants – Common irritants that can trigger asthma symptoms include smoke from tobacco use, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves or kerosene heaters, and strong odors or sprays, such as perfume, air fresheners, talcum powder, hair sprays, paints, cleaning fluids and solvents, among others. Dusty air can be a problem, including dust kicked up outdoors by high winds or indoors by a vacuum cleaner. Cold, dry air is a common trigger, as are some medications.

While some young children with asthma do “grow out” of the disease, in many cases, it is a life-long condition. However, with a good asthma management plan, which often includes medical treatment and supervision, lifestyle changes, and if necessary, allergy treatment, most asthma sufferers can reduce the impact of the disease.

Ready for Spring? How to Survive the Allergy Season

Spring means warmth, sunshine and new life everywhere, with flowers blooming, new plants sprouting and the trees putting on fresh new leaves. It is a season most people look forward to after a long, cold winter. However, for those who are sensitive to pollen, those first signs of spring signal the start of spring allergy season, that transition from a gray winter world to the vivid colors of springtime marking the onset of new allergy symptoms.

About Spring Allergies

Spring allergies, also referred to as seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever, is a problem that begins in the immune system, which, in sensitive people, reacts to certain harmless pollens, or tiny plant proteins, as if they were viruses, bacteria or other hazardous invaders. The result of that reaction is allergy symptoms, which may include itchy, watery eyes, itching in the nose, throat or roof of the mouth, sneezing, nasal congestion and dark circles under the eyes. Depending upon the severity of a person's sensitivity to springtime allergens, those symptoms can range from mild discomfort to more severe symptoms that significantly impact quality of life, leading to frequent sinus infections, disrupting sleep or affecting daily productivity at work or school.

Early spring allergies are most commonly triggered by pollens released early in the season by wind-pollinated plants. Trees are a major culprit in causing symptoms in some people. Pollen from birch, cedar, cottonwood and pine trees are very common triggers, and many sensitive individuals react to pollens from willow, poplar oak, mulberry, maple, juniper, aspen and box alder trees, among others. Grasses that release pollens early in the spring season include bermuda, fescue, johnson, perennial rye, saltgrass and timothy varieties.

While pollen is usually associated with spring allergies, spores from mold reactivated by warming temperatures can also be a problem. Allergic reactions to mold are similar to those from other allergens.

Determining the Cause of Symptoms is Essential for Correct Treatment

Because of winter cold and flu viruses that linger into spring, it isn't always easy to tell the difference between seasonal allergy symptoms and those of a cold or flu. This causes some people to suffer with undiagnosed allergies for years. So if you're experiencing frequent symptoms, seeing an allergist for testing is your best bet for an accurate diagnosis. Allergy testing can determine whether your symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction, and if so, exactly which allergens trigger those symptoms.

Dealing With the Symptoms of Spring Allergies

The best way to minimize symptoms is to avoid exposure to allergens when possible. That means paying attention to pollen level reports and staying indoors when pollen is high, showering immediately after spending time outdoors, using air conditioning to cool your home and car rather than open windows and vacuuming and dusting often to remove pollen that has found its way indoors.

While you can reduce exposure to allergens significantly with such methods, it cannot be eliminated entirely, so chances are you'll still have symptoms on occasion. A number of over-the-counter medications can provide relief, such as antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays and eye drops. Your doctor or allergist can help you decide which of these might be best for you. If non-prescription medications fail to provide adequate relief, prescription options are available, including oral medications, steroid nasal sprays, allergy shots or immunotherapy.

Do you have Summer Allergies? Here’s How to Cope

Millions of Americans are affected by seasonal allergies, which often begin in the spring and last through summer and fall. In the summer, the most frequent culprits that trigger allergy symptoms in sensitive individuals are grass pollens, dust mites, ragweed, molds and pet dander. The good news is that summer allergies don't have to make you miserable throughout the season – there are things you can do to minimize your symptoms.

Managing Common Summer Allergies

1. Allergy Testing

If you're suffering with allergy symptoms during the summer season, finding out exactly what you're allergic to can help you identify the culprits and avoid allergen exposure. To identify allergens that trigger your symptoms, testing should include the most common summer allergens

  • Grasses – Bermuda, blue grasses, Timothy, Bahia grass, Fescue, Johnson and Rye.
  • Weeds – Ragweed, cockleweed, pigweed, russian thistle, sagebrush, and tumbleweed.
  • Molds – Alternaria tenuis, cladosporium herbarum and mucor racemosus.

2. Know When to Go Out
Dispersed Pollen Granules on a Ragweed PlantKeep track of daily pollen and mold counts and stay indoors when they're high to reduce allergen exposure. Be aware of when allergens that affect you are heavy in the air. For instance, June is a key month for grass pollens, July is generally the beginning of mold spore season, and August is when ragweed pollens begin to emerge. The weather matters too, since factors like high winds and humidity can increase allergens like pollen and mold spores, and rainy weather can decrease airborne allergens. Additionally, the time of day you go out matters, since grass pollens are released in the morning and gradually dissipate as temperatures rise.

3. Filter Your Indoor Air

Keeping your windows closed and using an air conditioner to cool and filter the air can greatly reduce allergen exposure – just make sure you're using high efficiency filters that trap allergens and changing them frequently to ensure the most efficient air filtration.

4. Use Hot Water for Laundry

Hot water is more effective at cleaning away pollen, mold spores and other allergens that collect on clothing and household linens than warm or cold water.

5. Dry Clothes Indoors

As nice as that fresh outdoor smell can be in clothes dried on an outdoor clothesline, they trap airborne allergen in their fibers. Dry laundry indoors, either in a clothes dryer or an indoor clothesline.

6. Don't Carry Outdoor Allergens Inside

Pollen, mold spores and animal dander often hitch a ride on shoes, clothing, hair and skin when you've spent a significant amount of time outdoors. Minimize the amount of allergens you carry inside by removing contaminated clothes and shoes – preferably before you enter your living space – then taking a hot shower.

7. Deal with Dust Mites

Dust mites congregate in mattresses, pillows, upholstered furniture and carpets. Frequent vacuuming with a machine equipped with a HEPA filter can help, as can washing bedding weekly in hot water. Using allergen blocking mattress and pillow covers can reduce your exposure to dust mites.

8. Keep Allergens out of the Bedroom

Taking special care to keep allergens out of the bedroom can sometimes reduce symptoms. Keep clothes hampers, jackets or anything else that has been exposed to pollen elsewhere.

Diagnosing Allergies: All about Food Allergy Testing

Food allergies are on the rise in recent years. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology suggests that more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies.

People who have food allergies may experience symptoms that can range from minor ones, like skin rashes or nasal congestion, to moderate symptoms, like dizziness, abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting. Severe reactions can be life threatening, and can come with symptoms that include fainting, swelling of the mouth and throat and labored breathing.

If you suspect you may be affected by food allergies, you should know that the symptoms and health dangers caused by these reactions can be minimized, managed or even eliminated with proper treatment. That process begins with identifying which foods present a threat.

Diagnosing Food Allergies

If your family doctor suspects, after an evaluation of your symptoms and health history, that food allergies may be a problem, you may be referred to an allergist for further examination. Typically, allergists will use a combination of allergy tests to determine whether allergies exist and if so, exactly which foods trigger your allergic reactions.

Skin Tests

Often, screening for allergies is done via skin tests, also commonly called scratch tests or skin prick tests. This type of testing is not available from Health Testing Centers. To perform these tests, the allergist places a drop of solution that contains a food allergen on the skin of your forearm or back. Then the skin is scratched or pricked with a small probe or needle to allow a small amount of the solution to penetrate the skin's surface. Depending upon your particular circumstances and symptoms, your allergist may test one food or several – testing each on a different spot of the skin. Results generally appear within 30 minutes. Positive results are indicated by a skin reaction, typically a raised lump surrounded by a circle of itchy, red skin. If your results are negative, there will be no skin reaction in the treated area.

Blood Testing

Blood Tests Find IgE Antibodies

Blood tests detect the presence of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to specific foods in the blood. IgE antibodies are the immune system substances that trigger food allergy symptoms when exposure occurs. Health Testing Centers performs blood tests for possible allergies, including food and environmental allergens.

Other Tests

Other possible tests are oral food challenges and trial elimination diets. In oral food challenges, patients are fed measured doses of a suspected food allergen. Since this test has the potential to result in a serious reaction, it is performed in a controlled and medically supervised environment. The test begins with minute doses of the food in question, which are then gradually increased. After each administration of the suspected allergen, patients are observed for signs of a reaction, and if one occurs, the challenge is stopped and the patient given medications as necessary to treat the reaction.

Trial elimination diets also may be used to confirm a food allergy diagnosis. Allergists perform these tests by withdrawing suspected food allergens from the diet, typically for a few weeks. If eliminating them relieves symptoms, an allergy diagnosis is confirmed. Sometimes, allergists will then gradually reintroduce those foods in order to monitor the body's response. If symptoms return, this is yet another confirmation of a food allergy. If you have food allergies, working with your allergist to manage them is very important for your health and well-being.