Allergy : Specialists

What are allergies?

Allergies are very common and affect around 1 in 3 people in the UK. An allergy is defined as a hostile reaction by the body’s immune system to a harmless substance in the environment. The immune system perceives this substance as a threat and produces proteins called ‘antibodies’ which it then uses to attack this substance.

This substance is known as an ‘allergen’.

Common allergies include dust mites, pets, pollen and certain foods, e.g. nuts or seafood.

What is an allergy specialist?

An allergy specialist's also known as an immunologist, focuses upon the workings of the immune system and how it deals with disease and infection. The immune system is very efficient at repelling foreign bodies such as parasites, bacteria and viruses which if left unchecked, can causes diseases such as cancer.

Immunology is a multi-disciplinary field which includes the following areas:

  • Genetics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular biology
  • Immunogenetics

What does an allergy specialist do?

He or she investigates why the body’s immune system views a particular substance in the same way as an infection and releases antibodies to attack that substance. They are interested to know why certain substances cause this reaction whereas others don’t and why there has been an increase in the number of allergy cases in the UK.

When a patient is referred to a specialist allergy clinic they will undergo a series of tests which include:

  • Skin prick test: this involves pricking a tiny area of the skin with the suspected allergen. If the skin becomes red, swollen and itchy then this is confirmation of an allergy. This safe and reliable form of testing can be carried out on patients of all ages, but is not suitable for people with a severe allergic reaction such as anaphylaxis.
  • Blood test: this test involves exposure to suspected allergens followed by the removal of a small amount of blood. This sample is checked to see if this exposure to allergens has caused an increase in the level of antibodies.
  • Patch test: small patches containing suspected allergens are applied to the skin. These patches remain in place for a short period of time before being removed to check for a reaction. This test is often performed in cases of contact dermatitis.

In the case of food allergies, other diagnostic methods may be used such as a food diary or an elimination diet.

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