Allergies are one of the most common complaints in the world. Allergies worldwide have been on the rise for nearly 50 years, and today nearly 50% of children have at least one allergy. It’s possible to be allergic to just about anything, although pollen, dander, medication, and food allergies are most common.
This is why allergists exist. Also known as immunologists, allergists are doctors who specialize in treating allergies and other immune problems. As allergies are an overreaction of the immune system, allergists must have a thorough understanding of how your body fights infection to treat the hypersensitivity that leads to allergies. Seeing an allergist may help you improve your health if you’re experiencing certain symptoms.
What Does an Allergist Do?
Allergists are qualified to diagnose and treat conditions like hay fever, food allergies and intolerances, eczema, psoriasis, asthma, and certain types of sinus and ear infections, among others.
To treat allergies effectively, the allergist must first determine what is triggering the reaction. An allergist consults with their patient and performs a series of tests in order to discover specific allergies, determine their severity, and figure out the best course of treatment. This will vary depending on the substance.
These tests help the allergist diagnose and treat their patients appropriately. Allergists can then prescribe treatment, which may be as simple as avoiding an allergen — or as complex as undergoing immunotherapy and carrying an epinephrine pen.
Education and Training
Allergists are medical doctors who have specifically trained in the field of immunology, with a focus on allergies. Like most physicians, these doctors typically go through medical school to receive their certification in Internal Medicine or Pediatrics.
This process involves completing:
- An average of four years in medical school
- A three-year residency during which the physician focuses on their specialty
- An exam to become certified by the American Board of Pediatrics or the American Board of Internal Medicine
- A two-year allergy and immunology fellowship and exam to be certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology
Reasons to See an Allergist
There are many types of allergies, and they don’t always make themselves obvious. There are a number of signs that you might benefit from visiting an allergist, including:
OTC Allergy Medications Don’t Work
If you already know you have “hay fever” or other seasonal allergies, you may still benefit from visiting an allergist. If you find that common over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications aren’t controlling your allergy symptoms effectively, then an allergist can prescribe stronger medications to help you mitigate symptoms.
Many allergies cause significant inflammation in the sinus cavity. This can make it difficult to breathe while you’re asleep, which can lead to snoring or insomnia. If you have trouble sleeping or snore a lot, you may want to visit an allergist to determine whether allergies are the cause.
Chronic Sinus or Ear Infections
While allergies themselves aren’t caused by bacteria or viruses, they can make you more prone to infections. The inflammation caused by certain allergies can block your sinuses or eustachian tubes, keeping them from draining.
This creates the perfect environment for ear infections or sinus infections. If you regularly experience either problem, consulting with an allergist may help you prevent them from happening again.
Frequent Unexplained Mouth and Throat Irritation
Food allergies do not always lead to dramatic symptoms like peanut or shellfish allergies often do. Instead, they may just lead to regular itching and soreness of the mouth, face, or throat. Minor food allergies or intolerances may be hard to diagnose without the help of an allergist who is trained to test you for food allergies safely.
What to Expect at the Allergist
When you go to the allergist, they'll talk with you to learn more about when your allergic symptoms are most common. They may also perform a series of tests to identify specific allergens.
Testing may include:
These tests typically use very small amounts of allergens to determine which allergens, if any, trigger an immune response.
Once these test results come back, they will recommend a course of action. Minor allergies may be simply treated by avoiding the allergen or taking OTC antihistamines. Most allergies are the result of your immune system releasing excessive histamine, especially allergies to pollen and dander. If avoiding these substances isn’t possible, then an allergist may prescribe a stronger medication to prevent symptoms.
More severe allergies may involve a more serious course of treatment. For people with severe allergies or people who have previously experienced anaphylactic shock, allergists may prescribe an epinephrine pen for use in emergencies.
They may also recommend immunotherapy treatments for chronic allergies. This is a course of treatment that carefully desensitizes your immune system to specific allergens.