Q: How do I know for sure if I have a food allergy?

Many patients and parents are concerned about food allergies, which have been a hot topic in the press recently. Concerns about overdiagnosis and misdiagnosis need to be addressed due to the life changes needed to manage true food allergy.

First, it is important to know the distinction between food sensitization and a true food allergy. Sensitization is indicated by the presence of IgE antibodies made by the body in response to the presence of particular foods. This usually manifests itself as a minor itch or rash, or other non-life-threatening symptoms. However, in true food allergy the presence of IgE manifests in a much more harmful and potentially life threatening way, such as difficulty breathing, eczema, or even anaphylactic shock.

Food allergies are complex and can be difficult for physicians to diagnose. Physicians need a wide range of information at their disposal, including patient history, blood tests, and food challenge tests to help patients and parents understand the allergic process. 

Self-diagnosis is never advisable and can lead to overdiagnosis. If you suspect food allergy, see your primary care physician or an allergist, who can take a full patient history, administer the necessary tests, make an accurate diagnosis and develop a treatment or avoidance plan.

The good news is that more accurate food allergy tests are on the horizon. Allergen component tests will enable physicians to more accurately pinpoint precisely those allergens that drive the allergic process and those patients who are most at risk for serious food allergy. These tests are widely used in Europe but are just now becoming available to doctors in the United States (for more information visit www.pirllab.com). Allergen component testing will add another critical tool to the food allergy diagnosis toolkit. 

Robert Reinhardt, M.D., is currently the Senior Director Medical and Regulatory Affairs and Quality Management at Phadia, U.S. Inc, the makers of ImmunoCAP testing. He is also Associate Professor at Michigan State University. He Reinhardt is a graduate of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and the Brown University Family Practice Residency. He and his family reside in Richland, Michigan.