Allergist / immunologists are specialists in the diagnosis and treatment of allergies, asthma and other diseases of the immune system. Allergists practicing in the United States have completed medical school, at least three years of residency in pediatrics or internal medicine, then at least two years of specialized training in allergy and immunology. To be board certified, they must pass an examination and regularly attend continuing medical education programs in allergy and immunology.
Many people with untreated allergic symptoms aren't aware of how much better they can feel once their symptoms are properly diagnosed and managed by an allergist / immunologist.
An allergist's approach is personal. Your allergist typically asks about your medical history, does a physical examination and performs specific allergy and/or breathing tests. The results guide a personalized treatment plan which typically includes measures to avoid or eliminate triggers, recommendations for medications and education to help you take an active role in treating your disease.
Causes of Allergies
Allergies are the result of a chain reaction that starts in the immune system. Your immune system controls how your body defends itself. For instance, if you have an allergy to pollen, your immune system identifies pollen as an invader or allergen. Your immune system overreacts by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.
Common Allergic Diseases
Allergic rhinitis may be seasonal or year-round. Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) typically occurs in the spring, summer or fall. Symptoms include sneezing, stuffy or runny nose and itching in the nose, eyes or on the roof of the mouth. When the symptoms are year-round, they may be caused by exposure to indoor allergens such as dust mites, indoor molds or pets.
Allergy tests give very specific information about what you are and are not allergic to. For instance, if you wheeze when you're at home and don't know why, you don't have to get rid of your cat if your allergy testing shows you are allergic to dust mites but not cats. With this information, you and your allergist can develop a treatment plan to manage or even get rid of your symptoms.
Asthma is an allergic disease that causes frequent episodes of wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and/or chest tightness. It is common for people with asthma to also suffer from allergies, so your allergist may conduct thorough allergy and breathing tests to find the causes of your asthma. Studies have shown that care by an allergist can decrease the number of asthma flare-ups and the need for emergency care. You and your allergist can work together to ensure that your asthma is well-managed, so that you can participate in normal activities.
Allergists are helpful in treating recurring sinus and ear infections. People with asthma are more prone to sinus infections (rhinosinusitis) which can, in turn, make the asthma worse. Sinus infections are also common in people with allergic rhinitis. Although young children are expected to have more ear infections, it is important to monitor children with very frequent or severe infections. This is because the most serious immunodeficiencies usually become apparent during the first years of life.
If you have a food allergy, even a tiny amount of the food you're allergic to may cause a reaction. Symptoms of an allergic reaction are generally seen on the skin or involve the stomach and intestines. These include swelling, hives, eczema (itchy, red scaly rash), vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping or a stomach ache. Allergy tests performed by an allergist can determine which foods, if any, are triggering the symptoms.
Atopic dermatitis (eczema) is a skin allergy causing a red, dry, itchy rash on the face, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles. Atopic dermatitis is treatable but not curable. Urticaria (hives) are red, itchy, swollen areas of the skin that can range in size and appear anywhere on your body and seem to move around. Angioedema is a swelling of the deeper layers of the skin such as the eyelids, tongue or lips. An allergist can determine which allergic skin condition you have and help you take steps to treat it.
Anaphylaxis (an-a-fi-LAK-sis) is a serious allergic reaction that happens very quickly. Without immediate treatment – an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) and expert care – anaphylaxis can be fatal. Follow-up care by an allergist is essential.
Many people don't realize they have an allergy until they suffer an anaphylactic reaction. It is usually caused by foods, medicine, latex or insects, and at times without an obvious cause. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include hives, flushing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, throat tightness, nausea and dizziness or faintness.
Immune system problems may cause repeated infections such as bronchitis, ear infections or pneumonia. People with inherited immune system disorders (primary immunodeficiency disorders) are less able to fight infections and are more susceptible to complications. While these disorders are rare, there are about 100 different types, making diagnosis and treatment by an allergist / immunologist very important.
Feel Better. Live Better.
The right care can make the difference between suffering with an allergic disease and feeling better. By visiting an allergist, you can expect an accurate diagnosis, a treatment plan that works and educational information to help you manage your disease.
The AAAAI's Find an Allergist / Immunologist service is a trusted resource to help you find a specialist close to home.
Video: What is an allergic reaction? »
This article has been reviewed by Thanai Pongdee, MD, FAAAAI