Children's Health

Is it just sneezing? Or does my child need allergy testing?

Some seasons, it seems as though your child just can’t shake that cold. Or maybe it’s a continual cough that’s keeping him or her (and you) up at all hours.

Or sometimes you know your child has an allergy—but you just want to find out exactly what the culprit is.

“All of these are very good reasons for getting allergy testing,” said Dr. Kathleen May, division chief of allergy, immunology and pediatric rheumatology at Augusta University Health.

Whether your child is already on medication for a suspected allergy or is just miserable due to ongoing allergy symptoms ranging from sneezing, coughing and congestion to recurrent ear and sinus infections, allergy testing is an easy way to find out what’s going on. Allergies can be due to everything from environmental triggers like pollen, mold and pet dander to food. But once you know what’s causing your child’s symptoms, you can then use that information to avoid those triggers or try new medications to help improve your child’s quality of life.

Will it hurt?

The most common question by far that parents ask May is how painful allergy testing will be.

“It’s very gentle,” May said. “Imagine just a touch by the tip of a pin. We don’t make the skin bleed, and we don’t scratch the skin.”

Allergy testing is appropriate for all ages, too. In fact, May has even tested infants, whose parents may be concerned about possible food allergies. Conditions are very tightly controlled, and if there’s even a suspicion that your child could have asthma, doctors will conduct a breathing test first along with a careful evaluation prior to considering skin testing. A simple blood test is also available if there is any concern about risk of testing, requiring just a single blood stick.

There’s no preparation needed for the test, unless your child is currently on an antihistamine. If that’s the case, then he or she will need to be off the medication for a week prior to testing; if that’s not possible, then your doctor can also offer a blood test.

Allergy testing does require a time commitment, however. May advises parents to expect to be at the appointment for a minimum of two hours (yes, really!).

“We start by meeting with families to take a detailed history. The history is key,” May said. “We sit and talk for some time to get a sense of the exposures your child might have, including not only the home but also school, day care, other family members. We’re a bit like detectives in that way.”

After uncovering potential allergy triggers, allergists then develop a customized test just for your child, using very tiny samples of the suspected triggers, which are then gently pricked into the skin. In young children or when testing for a large number of allergies, May typically tests on the back, but for a smaller number, it’s the arm.

“Then we wait 15 minutes to see if your child has a reaction, which will look like a mosquito bite,” May said.

An allergy test could uncover that, along with grass pollen—which you suspected—dust mites are why your child is still sneezing even after those pollens settle down. Or it could confirm an allergy to shellfish or nuts. Either way, you can then make lifestyle modifications to help reduce your child’s uncomfortable symptoms or try new therapies.

What about allergy shots?

One very effective way to treat allergies is through a series of allergy shots. In addition, many may not be aware that persistent allergies can also develop into asthma—but that allergy shots have been found to be very effective in keeping that from happening.

But once again, it requires a time commitment. The shots inject a very small and diluted amount of the allergen, but in increasing amounts over a period of up to five years to desensitize your body’s reaction to the allergen.

“It is a big commitment,” May said, since shots also happen weekly, then every two weeks, “but not if you consider that your child otherwise may have to suffer from allergy symptoms for the rest of his or her life.”

And significant improvement may be seen within months after starting this therapy.

So should my child be allergy tested?

While the need for allergy testing depends on a child’s symptoms or a parent’s concerns about potential triggers, anyone can be tested.

“It’s very safe and you see immediate results,” May said. “And once you know what your child is allergic to, you can potentially avoid those things, anticipate symptoms and avoid emergencies.”

Help stop the sneezing

At the Children’s Hospital of Georgia, we offer physicians who are board-certified in allergy and immunology. For more information, visit augustahealth.org/chog or call 706-721-KIDS (5437).

About the author

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the only facility in the area dedicated exclusively to children. It staffs the largest team of pediatric specialists in the region who deliver out- and in- patient care for everything from common childhood illnesses to life-threatening conditions like heart disorders, cancer and neurological diseases.

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