Allergy is an adverse reaction of the immune system to substances that are not considered harmful to the immune system of most of the people. These substances include pollen, dust, smoke, insect venom, fish and nuts among many others. People who have allergies are prone to diseases such as asthma, hay fever, and eczema. Allergy should not be confused with intolerance which is an adverse reaction that does not involve the immune system. For instance, food intolerance results from the lack of sufficient enzymes to aid digestion hence cause conditions like bloating.

Identifying allergens

To avoid or treat allergies, it is important to identify them first.  In an allergic condition, the patient’s immune system produce allergen-specific antibodies known as IgE, which is responsible for causing adverse reactions that lead to allergic symptoms. Testing for the presence of these antibodies is usually done using two tests: skin test and blood test.

Skin test

Skin test involves either a skin prick or an intradermal test of which the latter is less common. First, the skin site is cleaned with alcohol then different allergens are dropped about 1-2 inches apart. The next step is to prick the skin under the drops with a needle and then wait for 20 minutes and observe. A positive reaction is characterized by the presence of wheals (raised, red itchy areas). The intradermal skin test may be done if the result is negative. Another skin test that can be done is the skin patch test that is used in cases of contact dermatitis.

Blood Test (RAST test)

Blood testing for allergies involves taking of blood sample and determining the presence of IgE antibodies that are produced by the immune system against specific allergens. In this method, allergens are first bound chemically to an insoluble matrix and then the serum from the patient is added for the IgE to bind with the allergen. A labeled anti-IgE is then added which attaches to the already bound IgE, and it is from this that the amount of the IgE can be estimated.

(In the next post, we’ll look at 3 Advantages to Blood Testing (RAST) over Skin Testing for Allergies.)

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