So you’re sneezing and rubbing your eyes this allergy season. Who isn’t? Allergies are common enough that many of us can manage our symptoms with over-the-counter medications and avoidance strategies like spending less time outdoors on days with a high pollen count. But when are allergies bad enough that you should visit a specialist?
First of all, if you’re seeing a primary care provider for regular checkups, you can always ask them about your allergies. Let them know how bad your symptoms are are and how much they affect your life, and they’ll help you figure out whether a referral to an allergist makes sense. (They may also recommend a specific person to see.)
But if you’re trying to decide on your own, here are some of the signs you could benefit from seeing a professional.
You don’t know what you’re allergic to
One of the biggest things an allergist can do that you can’t do on your own is test your reaction to dozens of common allergens at the same time. This is not the same as one of those mail-order blood tests, which are pretty much useless. Instead, allergy testing is usually done with a skin prick test. The provider will draw a little grid on your arm or back, and in each spot they will apply a small amount of a substance and prick your skin. There are sets of tests for pollens, pet dander, and other common allergens. If you’re allergic to one of the items in the test, you’ll have a skin reaction.
Other types of legitimate allergy testing, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), include challenge tests, where you ingest a small amount of a suspect food under supervision, and IgE blood tests (no relation to the mail-order IgG tests).
For skin tests, you’ll get the results right away (the test takes about 20 minutes). The allergist can then advise you about what you should do for the allergies that have been identified—if you need to carry an Epi-Pen, for example, or if you should use certain prescription or over-the-counter drugs, they will discuss this with you.
They can also provide other strategies that will help you avoid and deal with the allergens in your life. For example, my allergist recommended pillow and mattress covers as part of a strategy for managing my dust mite allergy. I had never thought those covers were likely to be all that useful, but I finally shelled out for them based on her recommendation, and my symptoms got much better.
You have asthma too, and it’s getting bad
Allergists also specialize in asthma. Both conditions involve the immune system, and people who have asthma often tend to have allergies. Consider visiting a specialist if you experience signs of severe asthma, whether they occur together with allergies or not. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI) identify these as:
- Wheezing or coughing, especially at night or after exercise
- Struggling to catch your breath
- Feeling tightness in your chest or shortness of breath
Trouble breathing is bad for you no matter the cause, and symptoms of asthma may overlap with those of other heart and lung conditions. If you can’t get in to see the allergist anytime soon, bring up these concerns with whatever doctor you can get in to see.
Your allergies or asthma seriously affect your day-to-day life
If you sniffle occasionally when it’s pollen season, you probably don’t need a specialist’s help. But the ACAAI recommends seeing someone about your allergies if:
- Your seasonal allergies last for months out of the year
- Over-the-counter medications aren’t enough to control your allergies
- Over-the-counter medications control your allergies, but only when you take enough that you’re feeling drowsy all the time or otherwise having unacceptable side effects
- Your allergies are causing chronic sinus infections, congestion, or difficulty breathing
- Your asthma or allergies are seriously affecting your day-to-day life.
If you’ve seen an allergist before, but your symptoms have gotten worse since then, it’s worth going back. For example, if you’re already taking asthma medication but you have frequent asthma attacks, that’s a sign you need to see somebody.