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Serum allergen-specific IgE testing: How much is too much?

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Ordering diagnostic tests that have little clinical utility has long-term detrimental effects on both patient safety and healthcare sustainability.

In the case of the 25-year-old evaluated for shellfish allergy, the clinician should first explain that the swelling of the lips and tongue (angioedema) does suggest an IgE-mediated allergic reaction and not a non–IgE-mediated allergic reaction or a food intolerance. Non–IgE-mediated food allergies and food intolerances are marked by symptoms relating mainly to nonimmune aspects of the digestive system, whereas IgE-mediated food allergies affect the immune system and can involve a multitude of organs, including the skin and the respiratory and digestive systems (Table 2).

However, clinicians should avoid indiscriminately ordering food allergen IgE panels and instead should focus on foods likely to be the culprits based on the clinical history.9 Indiscriminate testing can lead to false-positive results and unnecessary food avoidance.

Since the patient developed symptoms of angioedema when he was exposed to his allergen, he may be apprehensive about a skin- prick test and the possibility of being subjected to the same discomfort. Therefore, in this situation, it may be best to perform serum IgE tests, but on a few targeted seafoods rather than the food panel the physician had ordered. A patient can be sensitized to an allergen (possess IgE antibodies) but not experience symptoms when exposed to it (ie, have tolerance).5 Also, false-negative results may occur, so a negative serum allergen-specific IgE test should likewise be interpreted in light of the pretest probability of allergy to a specific antigen.

If the history and the results of testing are not clear and congruent, the patient should be referred to an allergist for diagnosis or for management. The allergist can provide management techniques and periodic assessment as to the progression and resolution of the allergy. Table 2 highlights symptoms that differentiate an IgE-mediated from a non–IgE-mediated food allergy.10,11Table 1 presents clinical indications and suggested diagnostic methods to the five most common allergen groups and the diagnostically invalid tests.1–6

The bottom line is that we must consider the poor performance of serum allergen-specific IgE tests when diagnosing and treating suspected type I allergies and avoid ordering food allergen IgE panels whenever possible.

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