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How Long Do Allergy Tests Take

by Lyndon Langley
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How Long Do Allergy Tests Take

How Long Do Allergy Tests Take

Allergies are caused by the immune system overreacting to substances that it doesn’t recognize as harmful — typically proteins like pollen or pet dander (which can be inhaled through the air), foods, chemicals and other environmental factors. The reaction most often occurs in your nose and throat, causing sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, coughing and trouble breathing. In some cases, more serious symptoms including difficulty swallowing, wheezing and skin rashes may occur.
Diagnosing allergies is tricky because there are multiple types of allergens, each with its own characteristics. There are also many ways for you to have been exposed to an allergy-causing substance without actually having one. It’s not enough just to know you’re allergic to shellfish; if you’ve never eaten seafood before, you could still test positive on a shellfish allergy blood test. That’s why doctors rely on several different methods of diagnosis when determining whether you have allergies.

The two major categories of diagnosing allergies include detecting specific IgE antibodies and performing skin tests. Both are equally important parts of figuring out what’s going on in your body. But they differ in how long after exposure to the suspected allergen they work, and how accurate they are overall.
In this article we’ll look at both methods, starting with skin tests. We’ll find out exactly what goes into them and how long they take.

Testing Your Skin With Allergens

There are three main steps involved in skin testing: application of the allergen, waiting time and interpretation of the result. First, you need to decide where you want to apply the allergen. You might choose your upper lip or forehead, but you should avoid places with broken capillaries such as the back of your hand. If you do end up using these areas, don’t use lotion, oil or any type of topical ointment beforehand. Next, prepare the area by washing your hands thoroughly and making sure no traces of bacteria remain. Then apply an antiseptic cream to keep infection from developing while you wait for the test. Finally, you can begin applying the allergen itself.

Most people experience mild reactions to their first few exposures. This is called delayed hypersensitivity, and it’s due to non-specific IgE antibodies (IgE means “immunoglobulin E”). These antibodies are produced naturally by B lymphocytes found throughout your bloodstream. They move around freely until stimulated by foreign substances like pollen, dust mites, animal fur and certain food ingredients. When they encounter these substances, they stick to special receptors known as mast cells located near the surface of your skin. Once attached, the mast cells release histamine and other inflammatory agents that cause swelling, redness and itching. Doctors consider delayed hypersensitivity the best way to determine if someone has allergies. And since it takes place so quickly after exposure to the allergen, it can help pinpoint potential triggers.

Delayed hypersensitivity isn’t always present in everyone who reacts badly to something. For example, if you get stung by a bee or bitten by a tick, you could have immediate hypersensitivity instead. Immediate hypersensitivity happens when your white blood cell line specifically releases chemical signals to attack the foreign invader. Histamines play a big part in this response, too.
So far, we’ve talked primarily about the effects of non-specific IgE antibodies. Specific IgE antibodies only attach themselves to mast cells when triggered by a particular allergen. Unlike delayed hypersensitivity, these reactions aren’t quick in nature. Instead, they usually take anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours, depending on the severity of your allergy.

Once the allergen is applied, you must wait for the reaction to show up. Since this depends heavily on the person being tested, it can vary widely between patients. However, most experts recommend waiting at least 15 to 20 minutes before taking a reading. During this period, you shouldn’t touch anything besides the paper strip. Afterward, you can interpret the results based on the color of the spot that turns up on the paper. Red indicates strong reactions, yellow shows weak reactions and green signifies no reaction at all.
Now that you understand what goes into a typical allergy test, let’s talk about how the process works.

An Overview Of An Allergy Test

Skin testing requires a specialized set of tools. Because you’ll be dealing with highly sensitive tissues, you’ll need to make sure you follow every step carefully. Here’s a rundown of everything you need to bring with you to the lab:

A clean room
Paper towels
Nose clips
Cotton balls
Rubbing alcohol
Antibiotics

After preparing yourself and setting up the lab, you’ll meet with a nurse who will explain the procedure. If you’ve ever had a shot at the doctor’s office, then you already have a good idea of what she’ll say. She’ll start off by telling you about the history behind skin testing, explaining how it was developed to improve early detection of allergies. The technique is essentially a controlled experiment designed to test whether you are susceptible to certain types of allergies. Basically, you’ll be lying down on a table while she applies various substances to your skin.
She’ll explain the importance of getting plenty of sleep prior to the test and bringing along any prescription medications you might be taking. You’ll also need to tell her about any allergies you currently suffer from. She’ll ask you questions about your medical history and current health problems. Then she’ll give you instructions on how to care for your equipment, clothing and hair during the test.

Finally, she’ll introduce you to the technician responsible for running the actual test. He’ll check your temperature, pulse rate and blood pressure before beginning. As he proceeds, he’ll apply solutions to your arm, leg and torso using a cotton ball soaked in either saline solution or pure histamine. If you’re having an allergic reaction, you’ll feel tingly, warm and possibly break out in hives. Within five to 10 minutes, the technician will stop the test and record his observations. Based on your skin’s overall reaction, he’ll assign you a numerical score ranging from 0 to 3. Score 0 represents no sensitivity whatsoever to whatever substance was used, 1 indicates mild sensitivity, 2 indicates moderate sensitivity and 3 represents severe sensitivity.

On average, it takes about 45 to 80 minutes for a full test. Sometimes the entire process can last less than half an hour.

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