Wondering if your nagging cold is actually an allergy? Or what about your
new skin cream that made your hands break out? Distinguishing an allergy from a
non-allergic condition is not always a clear-cut task. But knowing the
difference can sometimes help you solve what's ailing you, which in turn could
mean faster relief.
Mary Fields knows just how difficult pinpointing an allergy can be. The
64-year-old Bronx resident tells WebMD she was convinced her frequent hives
were caused by something in her diet.
In spring, people rush out of doors. They jog. They stroll. They smell the
And ...They sneeze. Sometimes a lot.
People with spring allergies know the drill: The itchy, watery eyes, blocked
ears, and nasal congestion that can put a crimp in even the sunniest spring
“A lot of times you don’t sleep well at night,” says Giselle Mosnaim, MD,
professor of allergy and immunology at Rush University Medical Center in
Chicago. “And if you don’t sleep well at night, you can be tired and...
"At first I thought I was allergic to chocolate, so I stopped eating that,
but it still came back and even started to spread from my arms and legs to my
back and thighs," says the retired nurse's assistant.
Fields' dermatologist referred her to allergist David Resnick, MD, FAAAAI,
who ran a battery of allergy tests on her. "All the tests came back negative.
This isn't an allergy. Her hives got increasingly worse with stress, which
might be a part of it. But her symptoms are idiopathic, meaning their origin is
unknown," says Resnick, who directs the allergy division of New
York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.
"I was a little surprised it wasn't food," says Fields, who says the hives
started when her husband was diagnosed with a heart condition and needed to
have a pacemaker implanted. "I was going through a lot of stuff but I
didn't realize I was worrying. So I'm trying to keep myself calm now, to start
releasing some of the stress, and I guess I'll see if that stops the rash."
Mistaking Allergies: Easy to Do
Fields isn't alone in thinking an allergy was at the source of her
outbreaks. Many people see just about any bad reaction to be an allergy, which
isn't surprising, since more than half of all Americans test positive for at
least one allergen, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and
Technically speaking, a true allergic reaction happens when the body mounts
an unusual immune response to something that's normally harmless. Most allergy
tests check for higher levels of antibodies known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE) in
the blood, which are launched by the immune system to fight the invading
As in Fields' case, food allergy is one of the more regularly misrecognized
types of reactions among people trying to self-diagnose. "In general, it's more
common to experience food intolerance than an actual allergy," says allergy
specialist Alan Goldsobel, MD, FAAAAI. "For the majority of people who believe
they have one, when they get tested it's not a true food allergic reaction,"
says Goldsobel, who is a clinical professor at the University of California,
San Francisco, and adjunct associate professor at Stanford University Medical
Goldsobel points out that although nearly 20% of adults claim they have a
food allergy, studies show that only about 2% of adults have a true food
allergy based on test results. And whereas almost 30% of parents say they think
their child has a food allergy, the actual rates range from only 6% to 8% among
children under age 6.
Regardless of whether it's food or other types of allergy, specialists say
they rarely ever have to convince someone they have one. "It's always the other
way around. I'm usually trying to persuade patients that they aren't allergic
to something," Resnick tells WebMD.