It happens to a lot of people: You start to notice a pattern of unpleasant symptoms, and they seem connected to your diet, so you begin to wonder if maybe you have a food allergy. Fair enough—and good on you for paying attention to what your body is telling you.
If you’re worried you might have a food allergy, the next obvious step is to see an allergist and get a test—which is not cheap. Allergy testing can cost thousands of dollars depending on a wide range of factors, and are not always covered by health insurance. So it’s a good idea to be reasonably sure that an allergist is the correct next step for you.
Forget home tests
First and foremost, don’t bother with over-the-counter at-home food sensitivity tests. They’re not exactly cheap either, ranging from $100 to $250, and they’re largely useless. In fact, they can cause more trouble than anything else as they can trigger for foods that aren’t actually causing you any problems, prompting you to make unnecessary changes to your diet.
The difference between an allergy and a sensitivity
A food allergy is specifically an immune response—you’re literally allergic to something that you’re eating. The term “food sensitivity” is often used interchangeably, but this isn’t correct. A food allergy is triggered by your immune system, whereas a food sensitivity is triggered by your digestive system, which can’t correctly process or tolerate something in your diet. While “food sensitivity” is a real thing, it’s poorly defined. Worse, people who think they have a food sensitivity often try eliminating suspect foods from their diets, resulting in poor nutrition and other dietary problems.
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The first clue that you’re dealing with a food allergy and not simply the results of bad dietary choices or sensitivity issue are the symptoms you’re experiencing. Food allergy symptoms will develop almost immediately after eating the problematic food you’re allergic to. These symptoms can include
- itching in the mouth
- skin rash or hives
- swelling of the face or mouth
- trouble swallowing
- difficulty breathing
- abdominal pain
You can also have a much more severe reaction called anaphylaxis. This presents with the same symptoms, but at a much greater severity. If an allergic reaction leads to extreme symptoms (or something even worse, like a loss of consciousness), go immediately to the emergency room.
If you’re not experiencing any of these symptoms, chances are you’re not dealing with a food allergy. While food sensitivities can trigger symptoms like bloating, gas, fatigue, constipation, or diarrhea, the symptoms typically take much longer to manifest because the food has to make its way into your digestive tract before it triggers a response. That doesn’t mean ignoring the discomfort you are feeling—consult with your physician and reconsider your dietary choices.
When to see an allergist
If you’re constantly experiencing the symptoms of a food allergy, and if you’ve tried identifying problematic food and eliminating it without results, and if you’ve tried dealing with specific symptoms with over-the-counter remedies without resolution, it’s time to make an appointment with an allergist.
They will ask you a series of specific questions to get a clear picture of your diet and your symptoms, and can perform a skin or blood allergy test that is much more accurate than anything you can buy over the counter. It’s important to note that even these tests are not magical and only serve to guide the allergist in the right direction. It’s the combination of the clinical data from a skin or blood test and the allergist’s training and experience that will help figure out what’s causing the allergic reactions that are making you miserable.