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Allergies health centre

Hay fever - How do doctors diagnose hay fever?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

If you're not sure that you have hay fever, it's a good idea to see your doctor.

Many people put up with the symptoms of hay fever because they think they have a cold. But if your symptoms make life miserable, it's important to find out if you have hay fever, because treatments can help.

Doctors can usually tell if you have hay fever by asking about your symptoms and when you get them.[4] Your doctor may look inside your nose and down your throat to make sure you don't have any other problems that could be causing your symptoms.

Your doctor may ask if you or people in your family have other types of allergic conditions, such as eczema or asthma.

Allergy tests

Skin-prick tests

Your doctor may suggest that you have a skin-prick test.[4] If this happens, you'll normally be referred to a specialist centre, although some GPs carry out this test. This test can help your doctor decide:

  • If you have an allergy

  • What's causing your allergy.

If you have this test, your doctor will check your reaction to tiny amounts of things that cause allergies.[2] For example, your doctor may use dust mites and pollens found where you live.

Your doctor will inject these into the skin on your lower arm or put them on a tiny pinprick made in the skin on your arm or back.

If you're allergic, you may get a small bump around where the test was done (this is called a weal). And the skin around the bump may turn red. If these things happen, you've had a positive reaction.

But it may take some time before you and your doctor can work out what's causing your allergy, because these tests aren't always reliable.[2] For example, your skin may not react to the pollen that's causing your hay fever. Or your skin may react to something that doesn't cause hay fever.

Some people may have a reaction but never have any symptoms of hay fever. About half of people with positive skin-prick tests do not get hay fever symptoms. So you should only have a skin-prick test if you get hay fever. Or you might end up with treatments you don't need.

You can get skin-prick tests done at private clinics. But doctors in the NHS don't recommend testing for everybody. Your doctor will probably suggest a skin-prick test only if it's uncertain that you have hay fever. Or, if your treatment isn't working well, you may need to find out which pollen you are allergic to so you can avoid it or have immunisation against hay fever.

Blood tests

You can also have blood tests to help find out if you have an allergy.[2][10] The tests can show if you have certain antibodies in your blood. Your immune system usually releases antibodies to fight infections. But it also releases them if you're having an allergic reaction.

The antibody that the doctor looks for is called specific immunoglobulin E against pollen (or IgE for short). If you have an allergy like hay fever, your immune system makes IgE when you breathe in pollen or mould spores. A blood test can show how much of this antibody is in your blood. An older blood test is known as a RAST test (short for radioallergosorbent test).

Last Updated: August 02, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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