For some people, allergies are a manageable nuisance. You take a daily over-the-counter drug and go about your business.
But for others, allergies can take a huge toll, impacting everything from day-to-day activities to overall quality of life. You might struggle to even step outside in the spring, for instance, or have a hard time visiting friends who have pets.
If your symptoms are unrelenting and your primary care provider hasn’t been able to help, it might be time to see a specialist.
Talking to an allergy specialist could be the key to getting the testing and treatment that will help you reclaim your life.
Disclaimer: the following is intended for information only and isn’t mean to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please talk to your doctor about any specific medical questions or concerns.
Getting Started with an Allergist
Not everyone needs to see an allergist to manage allergy symptoms, but it’s not a bad idea if you have ongoing problems. Plus, you may be able to pinpoint your actual allergens and find a more targeted approach to treatment.
If you have the following kinds of symptoms, you may want to see an allergy specialist:
- Trouble breathing
- Hives or rashes
- Reactions to certain foods
- Repeated respiratory infections
At first, you may see your primary care provider about your symptoms. Your PCP might then recommend over-the-counter or prescription allergy medication. You may also get tips about lifestyle changes you can try.
But if those steps aren’t enough, it may be time to visit an allergist. Depending on how your health insurance works, you might need a referral to see a specialist, so check on that before making an appointment.
Serious symptoms, such as breathing problems after eating certain foods, may warrant a trip to a specialist right away — or the ER, depending on severity. You can still ask your regular doctor for a referral, but you might not need to try pills or lifestyle adjustments first.
A doctor who specializes in allergy treatment is known as an allergist. An allergist can also be called an immunologist. This type of provider has the training and experience to provide in-depth allergy care.
Your First Appointment
The first time you see an allergist, the main focus may be on getting to know you and your symptoms. You may be asked questions like:
- What symptoms do you have?
- Are they worse at certain times of the year? During specific activities?
- Has anything helped treat them in the past?
- Do you ever have extreme symptoms, such as being unable to breathe?
- What is your home environment like?
- What about your diet?
- Does anyone in your family have allergies or eczema?
It’s a good idea to gather information on your family’s medical history before you go to the first appointment.
And if you have a log of your symptoms, bring that, too. These resources may help the doctor get a better picture of your situation.
Questions to Ask
You’ll have a chance to ask the doctor your questions as well.
Stuck for what to ask? Bring a notebook or open up the notes app in your phone to jot down the info your allergist gives you. Then, when it comes time for you to ask questions, you can look over your notes and ask for clarification or more details about different points.
Here are some good general questions to get you started:
- Could this be something other than allergies?
- Do I need allergy tests?
- How can I avoid allergy triggers?
- Should I expect my symptoms to get worse over time?
- Could my allergies cause a life-threatening reaction?
You may also want to come to the appointment prepared with a list of things you want to know. Don’t be afraid or hesitant to bring up your concerns. Allergies impact people to different degrees, so it’s important to find out everything you can up front.
Ins and Outs of Allergy Testing
Your allergist may decide that you’d benefit from allergy testing. This testing could happen while you’re there for your first visit, or you may need to come back later.
Note that allergy testing can take several hours depending on the kind of testing. Call ahead of your first appointment to find out if the initial consult includes testing. If you’re taking any daily medication for allergies, the allergist may want you to stop a few days beforehand.
It’s unlikely that you’ll have an allergy test for every possible trigger. Your doctor will decide which allergens your test should cover. That’s because getting tested for every allergy under the sun isn’t usually recommended. It makes more sense to choose the tests based on your environment and symptoms.
Your skin could be the key to figuring out your allergy triggers. As noted earlier, you may need to stop taking certain medications a few days ahead of time for a skin test. Check with your doctor before the appointment.
During a skin prick or scratch test, your provider may use a special tool to poke your back or your upper arm. The tool will also deliver a tiny dose of an allergen to the spot. With multiple pricks, the doctor can test for several allergens at the same time.
The doctor will look for a reaction at each pinprick site. If a spot becomes red or swollen, this indicates you’re allergic to that particular trigger.
There are also skin tests that involve making an injection into the arm. These are called intradermal tests. Just like with prick tests, the doctor will watch for reactions.
Skin tests are quick. Your doctor should be able to read the results in under 30 minutes.
You may experience some itching or irritation over the next few days. Be sure to ask about more serious side effects before leaving the office. Some people experience delayed reactions. Find out what’s normal and what would prompt emergency care.
You may need to be exposed to an allergen for a longer period before a reaction will show up. This is often the case for people who have contact dermatitis.
For a patch test, an adhesive bandage containing the allergen will be attached to your skin. It may be left there for about 48 hours.
Several days later, you’ll go back for one or more follow-up appointments, and the doctor will check to see whether you’ve reacted to the allergen.
Drawing blood is another way to test for allergies. If there’s some reason you can’t safely have a skin test done, the doctor may choose a blood test instead. Food, medication and environmental allergies can show up in blood test results.
Although blood tests may be the best choice for some people, they do have a few drawbacks.
For one thing, they usually cost more than skin tests. Also, you’ll have to wait longer for the results. The blood sample will be sent to a testing lab. And it might be several weeks until your follow-up appointment.
What Comes Next
Once you’ve had allergy testing done, the allergist will discuss the results with you. Based on the findings, the doctor can customize a treatment plan that meets your specific needs.
Your care plan may include prescription drugs. You might take medicine every day or only when it’s needed. Before starting medication, ask about potential side effects, and don’t forget to mention any other medications you’re currently taking to see if there are any conflicts.
The doctor may also recommend various lifestyle changes, such as avoiding your triggers and using an air filter at home. You may have already been doing some of those things, but now you’ll be able to make more specific lifestyle changes.
If you need additional treatment, the doctor may suggest allergy shots. Also known as immunotherapy, allergy shots expose you to small amounts of allergens so that your body becomes used to them.
Allergy shots aren’t usually thought of as a go-to, but they might be an option down the road or right away for you depending on the results of your testing. Ask your allergist about the pros and cons of allergy shots as part of your treatment plan.
Allergy Testing for Kids
For the most part, there isn’t an age limit for allergy testing. Babies as young as 6 months can have skin tests done.
But pediatricians may be conservative in recommending allergy testing for children, since some kids — but not all — might outgrow an early allergy.
Family history plays a role, but just because one or both parents have allergies, it doesn’t necessarily mean your kids will suffer the same fate.
Still, talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns, especially if your child has ongoing allergy symptoms that don’t seem to be getting better with other remedies.
For the most kid-friendly care, consider a pediatric allergy specialist. Your pediatrician likely has a go-to list of names for recommendations, so don’t be shy about asking for a referral.
Allergies for some children and adults can hold them back. If you or your kids can’t find relief in common allergy remedies, then it may be time to seek out help from a specialist. And the sooner you get help, the better. An earlier start to treatment could help you manage your symptoms more effectively.