How do health care professionals diagnose food allergies? What tests do health specialists use to diagnose food allergies?
To diagnose food allergy, a health care professional first must determine if the patient is having an adverse reaction to specific foods. A history of foods consumed and resulting symptoms is key information for the physician in the early stages of diagnosis. The doctor makes an assessment with the help of a detailed history from the patient, the patient's dietary diary, or an elimination diet. He or she then confirms the diagnosis by the more objective skin tests, blood tests, or food challenges.
History: The health history usually is the most important diagnostic tool in diagnosing food allergy. The physician interviews the patient to determine if the facts are consistent with a food allergy. The health care professional may ask the following questions:
- What was the timing of the reaction? Did the reaction come on quickly, usually within an hour after eating the food?
- Was treatment for allergy successful? For example, if hives stem from a food allergy, antihistamines should relieve them.
- Is the reaction always associated with a certain food?
- Did anyone else get sick? For example, if the person has eaten fish contaminated with histamine, everyone who ate the fish should be sick. In an allergic reaction, however, only the person allergic to the fish becomes ill.
- How much did the patient eat before experiencing a reaction? The severity of the patient's reaction can sometimes relate to the amount of the suspect food eaten.
- How was the food prepared? Some people will have a violent allergic reaction only to raw or undercooked fish. A thorough cooking of the fish destroys those allergens in the fish to which they react, so that they then can eat it with no allergic reaction.
- Were other foods eaten at the same time as the food that caused the allergic reaction? Fatty foods can delay digestion and thus delay the onset of the allergic reaction.
Dietary diary: Sometimes, a history alone cannot determine the diagnosis. In that situation, the doctor may ask the patient to keep a record of the contents of each meal and whether reactions occurred that are consistent with allergy. The dietary diary provides more details than the oral history, so that the doctor and patient can better determine if there is a consistent relationship between a food and the allergic reactions.
Elimination diet: The next step that some doctors use is an elimination diet. Under the doctor's direction, the patient does not eat a food suspected of causing the allergy (for example, eggs) and substitutes another food (in this instance, another source of protein). If after the patient removes the food, the symptoms go away, the doctor almost always can make a diagnosis of food allergy. If the patient then resumes eating the food (still under the doctor's direction) and the symptoms return, this sequence confirms the diagnosis. The patient should not resume eating the food, however, if the allergic reactions have been severe because this re-challenge is too risky. This technique is also not suitable if the allergic reactions have been infrequent.
If the patient's history, dietary diary, or elimination diet suggests that a specific food allergy is likely, the doctor then will use tests, such as skin tests, blood tests, and a food challenge, which can more objectively confirm an allergic response to food.
Skin tests: In a percutaneous prick-puncture skin test, a dilute extract of the suspected food is placed on the skin of the forearm or back. This portion of the skin then is punctured or pricked with a needle and observed for swelling or redness, which would signify a local allergic reaction to the food. A positive prick-puncture test indicates that the patient has the IgE antibody that is specific for the food being tested on the skin's mast cells. Skin tests are rapid, simple, and relatively safe.
A person can have a positive skin test to a food allergen, however, without experiencing allergic reactions to that food. A doctor diagnoses a food allergy only when the patient has a positive skin test to a specific allergen and the history suggests an allergic reaction to the same food. In some highly allergic people, however, especially if they have had anaphylactic reactions, skin tests should not be done because they could provoke another dangerous reaction. Skin tests also cannot be done in patients with extensive eczema.
Blood tests: In those situations where skin tests cannot be done, a doctor may use blood tests such as the RAST, ImmunoCap, and the ELISA. These tests measure the presence of food-specific IgE antibodies in the blood of patients, but they cost more than skin tests, and the results are not available immediately. As with positive skin tests, positive blood tests make the diagnosis of a specific food allergy only when the clinical history is compatible.
Oral food challenge: The double-blind food challenge has become the gold standard for objective allergy testing. (Some physicians prefer the term double-masked, rather than double-blind.) In this test, various foods, some of which are suspected of inducing an allergic reaction, are placed in individual opaque capsules. Both the patient and the doctor are blinded, so that neither of them knows which capsules contain the suspected allergens. (The capsules are prepared by another medical worker.) The patient swallows a capsule and the doctor then observes whether an allergic reaction occurs. This process is repeated with each capsule. Alternatively, the food to be tested may be disguised in another type of food to which the person is not allergic.
The advantage of a food challenge is that if the patient has an allergic reaction only to the suspected foods and not to the other foods tested, the diagnosis of food allergy is confirmed. Just as with a re-challenge after the elimination diet and with the skin tests, however, someone having a history of severe reactions should not be tested with a food challenge because of the danger of inducing another severe reaction. In addition, this procedure is expensive because it is difficult and requires a lot of time, especially for patients with multiple food allergies. This type of test must also be done under the careful supervision of a physician. Consequently, double-blind food challenges are done infrequently. They are done most commonly, however, when the doctor wishes to obtain evidence to confirm the suspicion that the patient's symptoms are not due to a food allergy. Then, additional efforts may be directed at finding the real cause of the patient's symptoms.