Diagnosis & Tests Allergies

Diagnosis – An allergy testing machine being operated in the diagnostic immunology lab.

Effective management of allergic diseases relies on the ability to make an accurate diagnosis. Allergy testing can help confirm or rule out allergies. Correct diagnosis, counseling, and avoidance advice based on valid allergy test results reduces the incidence of symptoms and need for medications, and improves quality of life. To assess the presence of allergen-specific IgE antibodies, two different methods can be used: a skin prick test, or an allergy blood test. Both methods are recommended, and they have similar diagnostic value.

Skin prick tests and blood tests are equally cost-effective, and health economic evidence shows that both tests were cost-effective compared with no test. Also, early and more accurate diagnoses save cost due to reduced consultations, referrals to secondary care, misdiagnosis, and emergency admissions.Allergy undergoes dynamic changes over time. Regular allergy testing of relevant allergens provides information on if and how patient management can be changed, in order to improve health and quality of life. Annual testing is often the practice for determining whether allergy to milk, egg, soy, and wheat have been outgrown, and the testing interval is extended to 2–3 years for allergy to peanut, tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish. Results of follow-up testing can guide decision-making regarding whether and when it is safe to introduce or re-introduce allergenic food into the diet.

Skin prick testing

Skin testing on arm


Skin testing on back

Skin testing is also known as “puncture testing” and “prick testing” due to the series of tiny punctures or pricks made into the patient’s skin. Small amounts of suspected allergens and/or their extracts (e.g., pollen, grass, mite proteins, peanut extract) are introduced to sites on the skin marked with pen or dye (the ink/dye should be carefully selected, lest it cause an allergic response itself). A small plastic or metal device is used to puncture or prick the skin. Sometimes, the allergens are injected “intradermally” into the patient’s skin, with a needle and syringe. Common areas for testing include the inside forearm and the back.

If the patient is allergic to the substance, then a visible inflammatory reaction will usually occur within 30 minutes. This response will range from slight reddening of the skin to a full-blown hive (called “wheal and flare”) in more sensitive patients similar to a mosquito bite. Interpretation of the results of the skin prick test is normally done by allergists on a scale of severity, with +/- meaning borderline reactivity, and 4+ being a large reaction. Increasingly, allergists are measuring and recording the diameter of the wheal and flare reaction. Interpretation by well-trained allergists is often guided by relevant literature. Some patients may believe they have determined their own allergic sensitivity from observation, but a skin test has been shown to be much better than patient observation to detect allergy.

If a serious life-threatening anaphylactic reaction has brought a patient in for evaluation, some allergists will prefer an initial blood test prior to performing the skin prick test. Skin tests may not be an option if the patient has widespread skin disease, or has taken antihistamines in the last several days.

Patch testing

Patch test

Patch testing is a method used to determine if a specific substance causes allergic inflammation of the skin. It tests for delayed reactions. It is used to help ascertain the cause of skin contact allergy, or contact dermatitis. Adhesive patches, usually treated with a number of common allergic chemicals or skin sensitizers, are applied to the back. The skin is then examined for possible local reactions at least twice, usually at 48 hours after application of the patch, and again two or three days later.

Blood testing

An allergy blood test is quick and simple, and can be ordered by a licensed health care provider (e.g., an allergy specialist), GP, or PED. Unlike skin-prick testing, a blood test can be performed irrespective of age, skin condition, medication, symptom, disease activity, and pregnancy. Adults and children of any age can take an allergy blood test. For babies and very young children, a single needle stick for allergy blood testing is often more gentle than several skin tests.

An allergy blood test is available through most laboratories. A sample of the patient’s blood is sent to a laboratory for analysis, and the results are sent back a few days later. Multiple allergens can be detected with a single blood sample. Allergy blood tests are very safe, since the person is not exposed to any allergens during the testing procedure.

The test measures the concentration of specific IgE antibodies in the blood. Quantitative IgE test results increase the possibility of ranking how different substances may affect symptoms. A rule of thumb is that the higher the IgE antibody value, the greater the likelihood of symptoms. Allergens found at low levels that today do not result in symptoms can nevertheless help predict future symptom development. The quantitative allergy blood result can help determine what a patient is allergic to, help predict and follow the disease development, estimate the risk of a severe reaction, and explain cross-reactivity.


A low total IgE level is not adequate to rule out sensitization to commonly inhaled allergens. Statistical methods, such as ROC curves, predictive value calculations, and likelihood ratios have been used to examine the relationship of various testing methods to each other. These methods have shown that patients with a high total IgE have a high probability of allergic sensitization, but further investigation with allergy tests for specific IgE antibodies for a carefully chosen of allergens is often warranted.

Other

Challenge testing: Challenge testing is when small amounts of a suspected allergen are introduced to the body orally, through inhalation, or via other routes. Except for testing food and medication allergies, challenges are rarely performed. When this type of testing is chosen, it must be closely supervised by an allergist.

Elimination/Challenge tests: This testing method is used most often with foods or medicines. A patient with a suspected allergen is instructed to modify his diet to totally avoid that allergen for a set time. If the patient experiences significant improvement, he may then be “challenged” by reintroducing the allergen, to see if symptoms are reproduced.

Unreliable tests: There are other types of allergy testing methods that are unreliable, including applied kinesiology (allergy testing through muscle relaxation), cytotoxicity testing, urine autoinjection, skin titration (Rinkel method), and provocative and neutralization (subcutaneous) testing or sublingual provocation.

Differential diagnosis

Before a diagnosis of allergic disease can be confirmed, other possible causes of the presenting symptoms should be considered. Vasomotor rhinitis, for example, is one of many maladies that shares symptoms with allergic rhinitis, underscoring the need for professional differential diagnosis. Once a diagnosis of asthma, rhinitis, anaphylaxis, or other allergic disease has been made, there are several methods for discovering the causative agent of that allergy.

Prevention

The consumption of various foods during pregnancy has been linked to eczema; these include celery, citrus fruit, raw pepper, margarine, and vegetable oil. A high intake of antioxidants, zinc, and selenium during pregnancy may help prevent allergies. This is linked to a reduced risk for childhood-onset asthma, wheezing, and eczema. Further research needs to be conducted. Probiotic supplements taken during pregnancy or infancy may help to prevent atopic dermatitis. After birth, an early introduction of solid food and high diversity before week 17 could increase a child’s risk for allergies. Studies suggest that introduction of solid food and avoidance of highly allergenic food such as peanuts during the first year does not help in allergy prevention.

Management

Management of allergies typically involves avoiding what triggers the allergy and medications to improve the symptoms. Allergen immunotherapy may be useful for some types of allergies.

Medication

Several medications maybe used to block the action of allergic mediators, or to prevent activation of cells and degranulation processes. These include antihistamines, glucocorticoids, epinephrine, mast cell stabilizers, and antileukotriene agents are common treatments of allergic diseases. Anti-cholinergics, decongestants, and other compounds thought to impair eosinophil chemotaxis, are also commonly used. Epinephrine is important in anaphylaxis.

Immunotherapy

Main article: Allergen immunotherapy

Anti-allergy immunotherapy

Allergen immunotherapy is useful for environmental allergies, allergies to insect bites, and asthma. Its benefit for food allergies is unclear and thus not recommended. Immunotherapy involves exposing people to larger and larger amounts of allergen in an affect to change the immune system’s response.

Meta-analyses have found that injections of allergens under the skin is effective in the treatment in allergic rhinitis in children and in asthma. The benefits may last for years after treatment is stopped. It is generally safe and effective for allergic rhinitis and conjunctivitis, allergic forms of asthma, and stinging insects.

The evidence also supports the use of sublingual immunotherapy for rhinitis and asthma but it is less strong. For seasonal allergies the benefit is small. In this form the allergen is given under the tongue and people often prefer it to injections.Immunotherapy is not recommended as a stand-alone treatment for asthma.

Alternative medicine

An experimental treatment, enzyme potentiated desensitization (EPD), has been tried for decades but is not generally accepted as effective. EPD uses dilutions of allergen and an enzyme, beta-glucuronidase, to which T-regulatory lymphocytes are supposed to respond by favoring desensitization, or down-regulation, rather than sensitization. EPD has also been tried for the treatment of autoimmune diseases but evidence does not show effectiveness.

A review found no effectiveness of homeopathic treatments and no difference compared with placebo. The authors concluded that, based on rigorous clinical trials of all types of homeopathy for childhood and adolescence ailments, there is no convincing evidence that supports the use of homeopathic treatments.