Reasons to visit an allergist

You should seek out an allergy and immunology specialist if you're not receiving relief from over-the-counter medications or prescription medications prescribed by your primary physician.

For instance, if you have asthma, you may want to see a specialist if you're having problems that force you to miss work or school often. You may also need specialist help if asthma attacks require frequent trips to the doctor's office, the emergency room or hospitalization. Asthma patients under the care of allergists make fewer emergency room visits than those who aren't. Asthma is a condition that can have serious consequences if you don't manage it appropriately. At this time, no cure for asthma is available, but an allergy specialist can help you control it so that you can have good quality of life.

You may also want to seek help from a specialist if you experience frequent rashes on your body and over-the-counter medication is not helping the situation improve. Severe reactions to a particular type of insect bite may also call for a visit to a specialist. When allergies disrupt your life and you can't get relief, contacting an allergist can help.

The allergist may diagnose and treat hay fever, allergic eye diseases, asthma, dermatitis, chronic sinus infections, frequent colds and immune problems.

Allergists also routintely see people with food, medication, bee and latex allergies. Eight types of foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergy reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These include cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios and macadamia nuts), fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat.

Pediatric allergies

Pediatric allergy and immunology specialists are experts at working with kids who suffer from allergies. They treat everything from hay fever, sinusitis and asthma to rashes, hives, insect sting, food or drug allergies. They not only find the source of the allergy problem, but do so in a way that puts your child at ease during the examinations. A kid-centered office and staff may ease your child's anxiety and fear that often accompany a serious allergy. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 6 million children, or 8 percent of kids in the U.S., have food allergies. Out of these young children, boys in particular are affected the most.

Pediatric allergists are trained in the latest diagnostic and treatment tools to effectively care for young patients. While many doctors treat into a patient's teen years, new therapies and safe tools for infants are also a part of this focused specialty.

The pediatric allergist will test your child to discover the irritant or other underlying cause of the reaction. Once the doctor identifies the problem, he or she can set up a treatment regimen to help restore the child's comfort and prevent any future allergy attacks.

Allergy specialists can educate families all about the child's allergy, which can include teaching them how to react quickly and effectively if their child accidentally comes in contact with an allergen. For food allergies, the doctor can also teach parents how to read food labels and prepare safe meals.

Doctors often ask about the child's home and sleeping arrangements, so they can offer suggestions on how to reduce possible allergy triggers that may cause an allergic reaction like dust mites or pet dander.

Testing for allergies

Allergy tests help find the substances that cause allergic reactions. The wide variety of allergy tests includes skin tests, elimination-type tests and blood tests.

Skin testing is the most common of the three and specifically identifies food allergies, causes of asthma, penicillin allergy or allergic contact dermatitis. An allergist can conduct a skin test using a few different methods. One way is a prick test where a doctor places a small amount of the suspected allergen on the skin and then pricks the skin so the substance goes slightly under the surface. Alternatively, the doctor can inject a small amount into the skin or use the patch method to diagnose allergic reactions by taping allergens to the surface of the skin.

The elimination method checks for food allergies. The potential problem foods are eliminated from the diet for several weeks and then slowly reintroduced one at a time. The person, or family in the case of a young child, carefully watches for signs of an allergic reaction throughout the process.

Finally, the allergist can use blood tests to measure the antibodies for a specific allergen in the blood. Known as the radioallergosorbent (RAST) test, this method is used when skin testing isn't a good match.

Methods of treating allergies

In some cases, pinpointing your specific allergy can take some experimentation. The doctor will evaluate the specific symptoms and conduct and interpret a series of allergy tests. Once the doctor identifies your allergy, he or she can develop a plan for treatment, which can include prescribing allergy shots and developing an immunization program to help you resist allergens.

Drug treatments can include decongestants, antihistamines, eye drops, nasal sprays or allergy shots to alleviate the symptoms.

Allergy shots offer a preventative treatment option. During allergy immunotherapy, the doctor delivers doses of the allergen, gradually increasing the amount in hopes the body will become less sensitive to the problem substance. The ACAAI says this allergy treatment is often used for grass pollen, dust mite and bee venom allergies.

If you're susceptible to a severe reaction to an allergen, your doctor may prescribe epinephrine, also called adrenaline, in a self-injectable pen.

Finding the right allergist

Dealing with allergies can frustrate you and your family members. You'll need to find a specialist whom you can trust and communicate with. Conducting the proper research can help ensure that you select the right allergy and immunology specialist.

If you know that you'll need the services of an allergist or immunologist, contact your health insurance company to make sure that this medical specialty is covered. Depending on your policy, you may need a referral from your primary care physician in order for your policy to pay for treatment. Read through the listing of allergists in the provider directory available from your health insurance company. Verify their qualifications, education, continuing education, accepted insurance plans and affiliated hospitals by consulting Angie's List, where you can also see member reviews and rankings.

You should also find out whether the specialist participates in continuing education programs related to allergies or asthma. Obtaining information about training that the allergist has received can help you decide if the specialist has adequate knowledge about his or her specific issues. The allergist you select should have board certification, which is the best way to make sure the doctor is truly an expert in the field. An allergist who is board certified goes through a three-year residency in internal medicine or pediatrics and has an additional two- to three-year fellowship in adult and pediatric allergies and immunology. These doctors are also required to pass a comprehensive exam that is given by the board that governs the field.

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