An immunologist treats health issues brought on by immune system problems. Also known as allergists, immunologists are doctors who diagnose, treat, and work to prevent immune system disorders.
You may see an immunologist if you have food or seasonal allergies, hay fever, eczema or an autoimmune disease. When your immune system doesn’t work as well as it should, your body doesn’t have enough defenses against infection. That can lead to increased risk of developing cancer or autoimmune diseases, which can send your immune system into overdrive.
What Does an Immunologist Do?
Allergies happen when your immune system overreacts to an allergen (such as food, dust, or pollen). They can be brought on by something you've inhaled, ingested, or touched.
Symptoms of allergies include coughing, sneezing, an itchy throat, or watery eyes. Severe allergic reactions lead to skin inflammation, creating hives and eczema. They may cause low blood pressure, asthma attacks, and even death.
Common allergens include foods like peanuts and shellfish, pet dander (tiny particles of skin shed by animals), mold spores, and dust mites.
Along with seeing patients, immunologists conduct research to understand why the immune system doesn’t always work properly. Clinical immunologists evaluate and diagnose children and adults, helping them manage and treat disorders.
Doctors who practice general medicine or other medical specialties can become immunologists as well.
For autoimmune disorders, when your immune system isn’t functioning correctly to protect your body, multiple organ systems may be affected. You might see an immunologist, but they are likely to work closely with or refer you to other specialists, like a rheumatologist.
Conditions Immunologists Treat
Immunologists work with the following types of medical problems:
- Respiratory (lung- and breathing-related) diseases, including asthma, sinusitis, and occupational lung disease
- Eye diseases such as allergic rhinitis or hay fever
- Skin diseases like eczema and contact dermatitis
- Severe reactions to medications, food, vaccines, and insect bites
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis or lupus
These specialists also conduct research on stem cells, bone marrow, organ transplants, and gene therapy.
Immunologist Education and Training
Immunologists in the United States spend at least 9 years training -- after earning a bachelor’s degree. The education process that follows includes:
- 4 years of medical school
- 3 years of training in their specialty, typically pediatrics (children’s health) or internal medicine (treating problems inside the body)
- Passing an exam and receiving certification from the American Board of Internal Medicine or American Board of Pediatrics
- A 2-year immunology and allergy fellowship (first-hand experience at a medical facility)
- A final exam to receive certification from the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI)
Doctors with ABAI certification have an in-depth knowledge of the immune system, immunochemistry, and immunobiology. They’re experts in diagnosing and treating autoinflammatory and inflammatory disorders.
Reasons to See an Immunologist
The immune system is a complex combination of organs, cells, and chemicals that protect your body from harmful bacteria, viruses, or other attackers. Disorders of the immune system are serious and need to be addressed by a specialist.
When you’re sick or have an allergic reaction, your immune system isn’t working the way it should. Decades ago, immune disorders were considered rare. Now, through improved testing and diagnosis, immunologists can find and treat diseases immediately. When you know what’s causing your disease, you can reclaim your health and prevent further damage to your body.
What to Expect at the Immunologist
To decide on the best course of treatment, an immunologist needs to know what’s causing the allergic reaction. You’ll be asked for a detailed description of your symptoms and their possible triggers.
The immunologist will perform a series of tests to identify the allergen or substance that’s causing your reaction. Each test contains tiny amounts of possible allergens that may trigger an immune response.
The testing includes:
- Blood testing to detect and measure possible allergens in your blood
- Patch testing, or placing a patch containing the allergen on the skin
- Pulmonary (lung) function testing to evaluate how your lungs work
- Skin testing, which involves using needles to prick the skin and then placing an allergen on the scratched surface
- A nasal smear, or swabbing the inside of the nose
When the test results come back, your immunologist will create your treatment plan. Taking over-the-counter antihistamines, or simply avoiding their triggers, works with minor allergies. Otherwise, your immunologist may prescribe something stronger to handle symptoms.