Are At-Home Allergy Tests Reliable?Health Hub
Food allergies can make us feel miserable. In more severe cases, they can be life-threatening. In this age of convenience, at-home allergy tests have become popular for figuring out what potential foods may be triggering our symptoms. These tests claim to provide accurate results without needing a visit to the doctor's office.
But are at-home food allergy tests reliable?
No, according to Dr. Laura Veras, a board-certified allergy and immunology specialist with Lee Physician Group. She discusses why and recommends for accurate diagnosis and appropriate management of a potential food allergy.
Dr. Veras notes that a significant challenge in treating food allergies is the term itself.
“‘Food allergy’ is often misused to describe symptoms that may or may not be caused by an allergic reaction to food,” Dr. Veras says. “Your symptoms might result from a food intolerance rather than a food allergy. Food intolerances, which are more common than food allergies, trigger your body’s digestive system. Food intolerances are caused by the body’s inability to properly process food.”
For example, she says lactose intolerant people may develop symptoms such as bloating, stomach cramps, and nausea after consuming dairy products. But having those symptoms doesn’t automatically mean they’re allergic to milk.
In fact, Dr. Veras notes that depending on your food intolerance type, you may be able to eat small amounts of problem foods without a reaction. That wouldn’t happen if you had a true food allergy. While food intolerances aren’t typically dangerous, certain food allergy reactions may require immediate medical treatment.
What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?
Dr. Veras says the answer is in our body’s immune system. Simply put, food intolerance doesn’t involve the immune system.
“True food allergies trigger the immune system, which causes your body to react,” she says. “When people who are allergic to a food are exposed to it, their immune system produces antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies bind to your allergy cells. During exposure to the allergen (the food that causes the symptoms), these allergy cells trigger the release of histamine and other chemicals into the blood, causing allergic symptoms.”
The reaction symptoms, such as a runny nose, rash, and itchy eyes, can be mild, Dr. Veras explains. But an allergen can also cause severe reactions like anaphylaxis (an-a-fi-LAK-sis), which is often characterized by trouble breathing, throat tightness, vomiting, diarrhea, hives, facial swelling and even a drop in blood pressure.
“Not all allergic reactions will turn into anaphylaxis,” Dr. Veras says. “The symptoms and severity of allergic reactions to food can differ between individuals, but reactions can also vary in the same person when exposed to the same allergen.”
Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical treatment, including a prompt injection of epinephrine and a trip to a hospital emergency room. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening and fatal.
WATCH: What is an allergy?
Currently, the safest and most effective way (standard of care) for people with food allergies is avoidance of the food allergen. That’s because there’s no cure for food allergy. Not yet, anyway. Dr. Veras notes some novel treatments, like oral immunotherapy (OIT), for example, may hold promise as a treatment option. However, at the moment, OIT is not widely considered by experts as a cure.
Visit your allergy specialist or take an at-home allergy test?
While at-home food sensitivity and allergy tests may seem like a convenient solution for identifying potential food allergens, Dr. Veras says they’re unreliable and inaccurate.
“Over-the-counter and at-home tests ordered online without a doctor’s prescription are not scientifically proven to be effective in diagnosing food allergies,” Dr. Veras says, citing a report of The Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy, published by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
She adds that some at-home allergy tests claim to diagnose food sensitivities using the food immunoglobulin G (IgG) test. “These types of tests, which compile results for about 90 to 100 foods to which someone may be intolerant, recommend eliminating them from their diet to improve symptoms. However, according to The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAI), these tests have never been scientifically proven as accurate.”
Lack of medical expertise: At-home allergy tests are designed to be user-friendly but lack the expertise of a trained medical professional. “Allergies are complex and can manifest in various ways, making it challenging to accurately diagnose them without a comprehensive evaluation,” Dr. Veras notes. A medical professional can consider your medical history, conduct physical examinations, and perform specific tests to accurately identify the root cause of your allergies.
False positives: Dr. Veras says one of the most significant concerns with at-home allergy tests is their tendency to produce false positives. Also given that these test are not standardized and often use unapproved methods to check for food allergies, they pose a risk of giving a negative result for individuals that are truly allergic to a food.
Lack of quality control: At-home allergy tests lack the same rigorous quality control measures as tests conducted in a medical setting like your allergist’s office. The accuracy and reliability of these tests can vary significantly, with some kits providing inconsistent or misleading results.
Misinterpretation of results: Even if an at-home allergy test provides accurate results, there is a risk of misinterpreting them without the guidance of a medical professional. Understanding the significance of positive or negative results, as well as the potential implications for your health, requires expert knowledge.
Seeking professional medical advice is essential for accurate diagnosis and appropriate management of allergies. At-home allergy tests can’t replace an allergist's evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment. These specialists can provide a comprehensive evaluation, consider your medical history, and conduct specific tests to accurately identify the root cause of your allergies. Remember, your health is too important to rely solely on at-home tests.
Talk to an Expert: LPG Allergy & Immunology
Our dedicated team of experts will develop an individualized plan to help you conquer your irritating allergy. With their help, you’ll learn to identify triggers, adapt to conditions, and feel confident in your surroundings.
Click here to find a location near you