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At-home allergy tests

A doctor’s advice for at-home allergy tests

When parents can get an at-home version of a medical test that would normally take time out of their family’s busy day, it’s going to garner attention. That’s exactly what’s happening with at-home allergy — or, more accurately, at-home sensitivity — tests. These kits can be ordered online and promise to provide information on sensitivities, often related to food.

I understand why at-home tests are popular. However, parents should be informed before making a decision about trying them.

Here are three important facts you should know about at-home sensitivity tests:

They claim to measure for sensitivities, not allergies.

The most important thing to know is that these tests are not marketed for allergies, but instead sensitivities or intolerances. Allergies can be life-threatening and parents need to speak with a doctor to learn about their child’s allergy and how to protect and treat their child.

The body reacts differently to sensitivities/intolerances than it does to allergies. Food allergies prompt activity from the immune system causing immediate and possibly life-threatening reactions, such as tightening of the throat. These reactions require immediate treatment. A food sensitivity or intolerance, on the other hand, prompts a less severe reaction, such as cramping or diarrhea. An example of this is lactose intolerance. These reactions don’t typically need treatment and are not life-threatening.

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They don’t measure the right things.

Most at-home tests measure immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, which indicate what the body has been exposed to, but nothing more. Having these antibodies present in your blood tells you what you’ve eaten recently, but doesn’t tell you anything about how your body has reacted.

To better understand a child’s allergy, a doctor may recommend a thorough history and measurement of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which is done through skin and blood tests at an allergist’s office.

Some at-home tests ask you to send in a hair sample. However, IgE antibodies are not present in hair, so these tests cannot give adequate information about a food allergy.

They aren’t medically validated.

These popular at-home tests have not be medically validated or recommended. They are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and leading international medical groups (including the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology) have actually publically spoken against them. Each of these groups has noted that the tests are irrelevant and discourage their use in diagnosing food allergies or intolerances.

With all of this information, some parents may still choose to give at-home tests a try. If that’s the case, I highly recommend you speak with your doctor before and after the test. A call ahead of time can help you better understand where your time and money can be best spent for tests, and a conversation after the test can help you best interpret its meaning (if any) and how to proceed.

Taking the test without a conversation with a board-certified or board-eligible allergist can lead to false diagnoses and unnecessary dietary restrictions. The good news is that your doctor is just a call away.