Food Allergy Testing
Category: Food Allergies
How do allergists determine which foods make me sick?
Some people know exactly what food causes their allergic symptoms. They eat peanuts or a peanut-containing product and immediately break out with hives. Other individuals need their allergist’s help in determining the “culprit” especially when the specific food cannot be identified or when the symptoms show up many hours after ingesting an offending food.
Your allergist will typically begin by taking a comprehensive medical history. You’ll be asked about the symptoms you experience following the food ingestion, how long after the food ingestion they occurred, how much of the offending food was ingested, how often the reaction has occurred and what type of medical treatment, if any, was required. Moreover, you will be asked about your overall diet, your family’s medical history and your home environment. These questions are necessary because your allergist wants to eliminate the possibility that another problem or allergic condition may be causing or adding to your symptoms.
For example, a patient’s allergy to inhalant pollen such as ragweed may be related to allergic symptoms in the mouth and throat following the ingestion of certain melons, such as watermelon, cantaloupe or honeydew.What is allergy testing?
You may be asked to undergo some allergy testing. Your allergist may employ skin testing, in which a diluted amount of the appropriate food extract is placed on the skin and the skin is then lightly punctured. This procedure is safe and generally not painful. Within 15 to 20 minutes, a positive reaction typically appears as a raised bump surrounded by redness, similar to a mosquito bite, and indicates the presence of allergic, or IgE, antibodies to the particular food. In some cases, an allergy (IgE) blood test can be used to provide similar information to that obtained by the skin test. The IgE blood test is generally more expensive than skin testing and the results are usually not available for one to two weeks.
If properly performed and interpreted, skin tests or IgE blood tests to foods are reliable and good screening tests for food allergy. However, it’s entirely possible to test “allergic” to a food (by skin testing or IgE blood testing) and yet have no symptoms when that food is eaten. Thus, confirmation requires appropriately designed oral challenge testing with each suspected food.How do special diets help pinpointing the problem?
With the information gained from your history, physical exam and testing, your allergist may further narrow down the suspected foods by placing you on a special diet. If your symptoms occur only occasionally, the culprit is likely a food that is eaten infrequently. Your allergist may ask you to keep a daily food diary listing all food and medication ingested, along with your symptoms for the day. By reviewing and comparing “good days” with “bad days” you and your allergist may be able to determine which food is causing your reaction.
If only one or two foods seem to be causing allergic reactions, it may be necessary for you to go on a food elimination diet. The suspect food must be completely eliminated in any form for a short time—one to two weeks. If the allergic symptoms subside during abstinence and flare up when the food is ingested again, the likelihood of identifying the problem food can be increased.
If several foods appear to cause problems and/or the diagnosis of food allergy is equivocal, your allergist may want to confirm the role of each suspected food by oral food challenge testing. Not all positive skin tests and/or IgE blood tests equal a definite food allergy. With this in mind, food challenges are the best way to determine whether or not a food allergy really exists.
During an oral food challenge test you will eat or drink small portions of a suspected food in gradually increasing portions over a given period of time, usually under a physician’s supervision, to see if an allergic reaction occurs.