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Can you trust online allergy tests?

Allergy test

Have you ever had an allergic reaction? Did you take a test to confirm whether you actually have an allergy? Here’s Victoria from Sense About Science on why you need to think twice before buying online allergy tests.

When I found myself covered in hives last week, I was pretty sure it was an allergic reaction. But to what? Should I be avoiding a certain type of food, face moisturiser, or trying to keep indoors on high-pollen days?

My concerned housemate kindly sent me links to lots of allergy tests she’d found online. It seems I could simply pay for a test to find out what I was allergic to. But they were pricey – many were upwards of £100! So do these tests really work? Fortunately, a recent part of my work at Sense About Science made me particularly sceptical and eager to hang onto my cash.

Making sense of allergies

With the help of leading experts, we have just launched a new guide, Making Sense of Allergies. These experts warned us that many of the available tests are based on dubious scientific evidence, and there is no one allergy test that can alone diagnose an allergy.

From their insights, it seems there is still a lot that specialists don’t know about the causes of allergies, but it is important that what they do know is not drowned out by misinformation. It is around these uncertainties that misleading information about causes, conflicting advice, and an opportunistic market in dodgy tests and treatments has developed.

With allergies on the rise it’s no surprise then that many of us are confused by allergies, unsure if we have one, or what to do about it. Doctors see many people on unnecessarily restricted diets or taking potentially harmful treatments, having followed the advice of invalid tests. Tariq El-Shanawany, Consultant Clinical Immunologist, said:

‘It might feel reassuring to get a quick result from a test you have found online, but if it’s misleading it’s a waste of time.’

Getting your allergies tested

Even the best allergy tests cannot be 100% certain, the experts say. We’d advise that allergy testing needs to be done under the care of a medical professional in conjunction with a face-to-face consultation, because results from the tests must be considered in the context of the patient’s medical history.

Experts are concerned that ineffective tests and other kinds of self-diagnosis are creating a large proportion of people who think they have an allergy when they don’t, and dangerous allergies are trivialised.

Fortunately, my allergic reaction wasn’t life threatening. But my sister-in-law’s carrot allergy is (she can barely go near one without needing an Epi-pen). I’m now going to visit my GP, rather than shelling out for a dubious test.

What’s your experience with allergies? Have you ever seen any allergy tests? Did you buy one instead of visiting your GP?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Victoria Murphy, Programme Manager at Sense About Science. All opinions expressed here are Victoria’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

Comments
Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

I have a very high regard for the output of Sense About Science which works on a very small budget but produces first rate work . I have read the pdf. cover to cover just now and it sharpens up my thinking. I do get emails from three of the organisations quoted so in some respects I thought I knew more than I did.

A gripe:
” Most allergy tests and natural treatments offered on the high street and online have no scientific basis. These ineffective tests and other kinds of self diagnosis are creating a large proportion of people who think they have an allergy when they don’t. One study found 34% of parents reported food allergies in their children but only 5% actually had an allergy. Myths about artificial additives, junk food and immunisations causing allergies are also contributing to self diagnosed allergy.

The use of percentages without actual figures . This is something I am veruy surprised at coming from the charity. I thought clarity on figures would be a given.

Two minor observations and not SaS’s remit:
It may be too recent but I see that many people are complaining about the re-formulated Lenor even to the extent that the “fragance” can affect people around them. This may be an area to explore if people are being affected.

The problems of pollens etc in clothing and indadequate rinsing to clear the pollen. Or this may be the drying of clothes out of doors taking on a new load of pollen. I wonder if this might provide allergic reactions out of pollen season?

Keep up the excellent work : )

Profile photo of wavechange
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Dieseltaylor – Regarding the percentages mentioned in the Making Sense of Allergies guide, a reference to the relevant paper is provided: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1398-9995.2007.01570.x/epdf This states that the number of children in the study was 969. This article is cited by over 100 other articles, indicating it has generated some interest in the field.

Profile photo of Victoria Murphy
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Thanks for your comment (and to Wavechange below for sharing the reference and pulling out the sample size!). I hadn’t heard of the effects of fabric conditioner fragrance affecting people. If we start seeing these claiming ‘hypo-allergenic’ or ‘allergen free’, I think it would be on to ‘Ask for Evidence’ about.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Hi Victoria. My breathing is affected by various fragrances used in various household products. The worst is air fresheners that release a scent continuously, such as plug-in devices and porous sticks that sit in a reservoir of fragrance. After an hour or two I have to go and use an inhaler or get rid of them. Years ago I learned that fragrances that affect me often have a potent smell. I have met other asthmatics who find that fragrances that affect them also have a very strong smell.

When buying laundry detergents I have a quick sniff at the (unopened) box, which is enough to tell me what to avoid.

Profile photo of alfa
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I don’t just sniff the unopened box, I take the tops off anything with a fragrance and smell them. (I wouldn’t dream of doing it to anything with a shelf life or if it was sealed of course.)

Strong fragrances can make me sneeze and feel sick and fabric conditioners have very strong smells. I only have to smell them when I can’t get my regular one or they discontinue my current product. They might also give me a rash although other chemicals in the product could be to blame, never quite worked that one out.

Washing powders and liquids can definitely give me a rash and I dread a product being discontinued or a change in the ingredients.

Profile photo of wavechange
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Manufacturers do change the formulation of their products for various reasons. It may be to make them more effective, cheaper to manufacture, safer or to be better for the environment (such as removal of phosphates from laundry detergents). Sometimes these changes can be seen on the material safety data sheet (MSDS), but this only mentions ingredients that could be harmful.

I would like to see all ingredients in products listed, as they are on most foods. This could help those that suffer from skin irritation and allergies to identify the problem.

Fabric conditioners are best avoided because they are added to the final rinse and remain on the fabric. I don’t want a bunch of unknown chemicals on my clothes and bedding.

Profile photo of alfa
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Whether it is the fragrance or other ingredients, I can have just as much a problem with soaps, hand-wash, shampoos and conditioners and even sun-tan lotion. They rarely do more than make me itch, but there has been many a time when I have had to return to a washroom and hold my hands under the cold tap until the itching subsides.

Are chemicals in fabric conditioner really that much different to all the other chemicals we subject ourselves to?

Profile photo of wavechange
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Alfa – The problem is that we don’t know what is in fabric conditioners and other household products. Manufacturers are required by law to tell us what is in most foods, though there are numerous exceptions including alcoholic drinks and bakery products. Manufacturers are also at liberty to change the ingredients of their products. If the product has been improved, the manufacturer will probably label it as ‘new improved’ but if the change has been made to decrease production costs, we are unlikely to find out.

Some chemicals wash off the skin and fabrics easily, whereas others do not. Saffron would be a good example. Some chemicals are intended to remain on the skin for a long time (e.g. sun tan cream) and others to remain on fabrics (e.g. fabric conditioners) that may be in contact with the skin for an extended period.

Without knowing what is in products, anyone suffering from skin irritation or an allergy could have great difficulty in knowing what to avoid. I have lost count of the number of chemicals that have been withdrawn from household and garden products since I did a chemistry degree in the early 70s.

Manufacturers rarely tell us which chemicals are in their products and we cannot even make a Freedom of Information request because companies are exempt.

GPs often prescribe a non-sedating antihistamine for people like you who suffer skin irritation. It would be better to know what causes the problem and avoid products containing that ingredient.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

Please note below my mention that SC Johnston are in the process of revealing their ingredients.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/business/maker-of-glade-to-disclose-chemical-details.html

Consumers could always organise selective boycotts of companies that continue not to provide details. It is a matter of organisation to encourage other sto follow the example being set by Fisk Johnson.

” Customers have already been able to see specific dyes, waxes and other ingredients used in Glade’s various air fresheners and candles. But the chemicals behind scents like “Aruba wave” and “Hawaiian breeze” have largely been a mystery. Some of the ingredients for Aruba wave, for instance, include 2-t-butylcyclohexyl acetate, 2,6-dimethyl-7-octen-2-ol, allyl caproate, benzyl salicylate, ethyl 2,2-dimethyl hydrocinnamyl and ethyl hexanoate.
“Fragrance disclosure is a really big deal and consumers have been asking for it for a really long time,” said Janet Nudelman, the director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund.”

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Thanks for this, DT. This information is far from perfect but it’s a lot better than being provided with no information or a material safety data sheet covering only chemicals known to be harmful (sometimes at higher concentrations than present in the product). For those trying to track down problems with irritation and allergy, it is vital that ingredient lists are up to date because manufacturers often change the formulation of their products.

What a wonderful collection of unnecessary products. 🙁

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Welcome Victoria. I’m delighted that Which? has hosted another Conversation featuring Sense About Science.

I have suffered from allergic asthma since my early teens and my eyes are sensitive to certain allergens. I’m allergic to some dogs and cats, to certain moulds found outdoors and in damp dusty garden sheds, and contact with certain plants. About 25 years ago I developed a very severe allergy to moulds or bacteria in blue cheeses and in muesli, which can contain nuts with traces of mould. Thankfully the problem gradually subsided and I was able to discard my emergency injection.

It’s a long time since I have had skin tests. Many years ago I was warned by a specialist that there was a small but real risk of serious reaction – presumably anaphylactic shock. If that is the case, I wonder about the safety of DIY skin tests. Perhaps these tests don’t contain allergens known to elicit such serious reactions.

I have a lot of sympathy for those who do suffer from allergies. Those who don’t cannot relate to the problem. Hundreds of dog owners have told me that I won’t be allergic to their dog, yet even I don’t know until I have been in a room with it for a few minutes. I don’t need to touch a dog to find out. Those with allergies have to explore their own allergies, aided by skin tests. If tests can be done professionally, either via the NHS or privately (I’ve used both) then there seems little point in taking the risk in diagnostic tests of uncertain quality.

Profile photo of Victoria Murphy
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Thanks for your comment Wavechange. I agree, as do the experts in the guide, that taking home tests based on dubious scientific evidence is not a good idea! I hope that you manage to get through the pollen season okay this year!

Profile photo of rarrar
Member

I had always had some eczema , low level hay fever etc and had a dog in the house, when the last dog died and we didnt replace him I was amazed how most of my “hay fever” etc disappeared within a month or two. I agree many dog owners do not realise how many people are affected even at a low level and how glad some of us are that there are still hotels, B&Bs and holiday cottages which do NOT allow pets !

Profile photo of wavechange
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Rarrar – As pointed out in the ‘Making Sense of Allergies’ guide mentioned in the introduction, it is the dander (shed skin) that is the cause of allergy to dogs, rather than the fur itself. I once read that proteins in the saliva of cats is another cause of allergies.

If I am affected by a dog it either triggers my asthma or makes my eyes feel as if they have sand in them.

The guide does not appear to mention synergistic effects, where the presence of one allergen makes you more sensitive to others. It’s possible that you were affected by the combination of your dog and hay fever. Remove one and there is less of a problem.

The best solution is obviously to book a place that does not accept pets, but you may be OK with somewhere that has had a foreign visitor during the previous week. They never bring pets.

Profile photo of Victoria Murphy
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If you have questions about synergistic effects – or if anyone has questions about allergies – Sense About Science is running an allergy Q&A with Mumsnet. You can put your questions to a panel of experts any time up until Sunday 14th June: http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/mumsnet_q_and_a/2397713-Q-A-about-allergies-with-Sense-About-Science

Profile photo of
Member

Go to the doctor’s and get some professional advice if you are worried about your health. That’s what they are there for. If you are simply interested rather than worried then by all means try this stuff BUT if you do find anything that causes concern go to the doctor.

Profile photo of Victoria Murphy
Member

Thanks for your comment, and your advice aligns with that of Maureen Jenkins, from Allergy UK: “If you think you have a food allergy, see your GP!”

Profile photo of malcolm r
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The internet gives us all opportunities to learn about our medical conditions and then to treat them. That’s a bad idea. It’s fine to frighten yourself by looking at what your symptoms might mean but to then buy online drugs or testing kits to help treat them is silly and can be dangerous. I think Victoria was on Today (Radio 4) the other morning and gave a clear explanation as to why you should not use allergy testing kits – primarily because you don’t have the knowledge to correctly interpret the results.

Does the NHS offer allergy testing after a suspected allergic reaction?

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

I encourage people to stick to the advice offered by the NHS and any websites they recommend. There is some information about allergy testing on their website: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/allergies/Pages/Diagnosis.aspx

This includes:
“Allergy testing kits
The use of commercial allergy-testing kits is not recommended. These tests are often of a lower standard than those provided by the NHS or accredited private clinics. Allergy tests should be interpreted by a qualified professional who has detailed knowledge of your symptoms and medical history.”

I’m not convinced that all the information on the Allergy UK website is useful and last time I checked there was still a reference to homeopathy.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
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http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/homeopathy/Pages/introduction.aspx

Tough luck. The NHS reference it also – and have treatments. No I do not want a re-run of any debate on this subject at all it was just your aside I felt unjust about Allergy UK.

It is that site that has a conversation on Lenor
“http://forum.allergyuk.org/viewtopic.php?t=1333″
an example:
” I have become aware of a sensitivity to fabric conditioners since my son returned home after a weekend with his dad who had washed his clothes in something that smelled so strongly it almost immediately made my chest feel restricted. Thought it was a one off but had the same reaction to a person wearing the same ‘fragrance’ who sat quite close at work. Begged both parties not to use the stuff which helped.”

Obviously this story may be bogus as we have a man washing clothes – but even so : )

Profile photo of wavechange
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I’m very well aware about the (limited) availability of homeopathy on the NHS. Despite previous criticism, our Health Secretary remains interested in homeopathy: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/may/08/jeremy-hunt-homeopathy-studies-chief-medical-officer

Anyone who sees merit in homeopathy should have a look at this article by Sense About Science: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/resources/54/Homeopathy.pdf

I am certainly not condemning the Allergy UK website but in addition to very useful information there are some fairly obvious weaknesses.

Regarding the discussion on Lenor, I have had very similar experiences with various fragrances – from laundry detergents to expensive perfumes.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Dieseltaylor – Allergy UK is listed among the ‘trusted sources’ of further information in the ‘Making Sense of Allergies’ guide published by Sense About Science, mentioned in Victoria’s introduction.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

SC Johnson seems to be leading the move to disclosure judging from media reports. It has recently revealed everything that goes into Glade. This project of enlightenment is driven by their CEO and is a considerable investment in money and time.

Not perfect but a start.

“The Glade products contain mostly benign chemical ingredients, but there are still a few concerning components that public health advocates argue shouldn’t be there. These include known allergens like benzyl benzoate and Lilial (also known as butylphenyl methylpropanal), as well as BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), a toluene-based antioxidant that is not only a skin irritant and allergen, but also has been linked to tumor formation and developmental effects in animal studies. “

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

Oops the above post was a more general comment not meant for here.

Wavechange – In my opening post I mentioned I had read the full .pdf so I was aware of AllergyUK’s involvement. You may say I was doubly interested as I have been in contact with AllergyUK since the ” 60C washing machine scandal of August 2013 “. I support their aims and take an active interest.

I was very upset that despite their input Which? failed to mention that AllergyUK actually arrange testing of washing machines specifically for the efficacy in dealing with allergens. As we are all aware there now exists unchecked in the UK market washing machines that barely reach 41C on a purported 60C wash.

I specifically I have checked with two favoured Which? suppliers and in mid 2014 neither AO or John Lewis had any information available or knowledge about machines that could wash at hygenically.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Dieseltaylor – As I’ve said, I’m not entirely happy with the information on the Allergy UK website.

Here is an example, from product description: “Indesit Classic Supreme Rinse ANTI ALLERGY RINSE & ANTI ALLERGY cycle: Hotpoint/Hotpoint Ariston/Ariston washing machines take care of your laundry guaranteeing you perfect hygiene and outstanding cleaning results. Washing Machines/Washer dryers with Anti Allergy Rinse option or Anti Allergy cycle provide a deep sterilization of your garments removing 100% of cats and dogs allergens, pollen and house dust mite.” This is unscientific claptrap. What is meant by ‘perfect hygiene’ and ‘deep sterilisation’? No washing machine sterilises anything, and there are no degrees of sterilisation.

Other countries are moving towards washing in cold water to save energy and minimise fabric damage. I have no idea how effective machines that wash in cold water will be in removing allergens.

Profile photo of Patrick Taylor
Member

I daresay they are not allowed to change a manufacturers marketing claims.

However I have no doubt you will be pleased to know that I have researched deeply in to this area and for most allergenic materials a higher number of rinses actually is the answer. These of course can be cold rinses. So I have no doubt that these machines recommended by AllergyUK are superior to the generality of machines.

For purposes of hygiene the hotter the wash the more probability of reducing pathogens etc. Temperatures over 60C – I think here again the proper answer is x temperature for x time – is required to kill bed bug eggs. Mites are susceptible to heat and to multiple rinses.

And the NHS guidelines on home-laundering still has an old fashioned preference for the highrer temperature. Presumably for sceintific reasons.

Profile photo of wavechange
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I would have more respect if the manufacturer’s information was disregarded. Which? does not trot out marketing claims when testing appliances. Are there any details of how AllergyUK tests machines and what temperatures do they operate at?

Are laundry detergents containing bleaching agents could be effective in killing dust mites? I don’t know, but if I suffered from dust mite allergy I would try this approach.

Profile photo of alfa
Member

I had allergy tests on the NHS in my later teenage years that identified various pollens, dust and animals I was allergic to. I would say it was fairly accurate.

They gave me a prescription for an injection a week for about 8 months that would see me through the following summer season. It seemed an awful lot of injections for a very short benefit so I never carried through with them.

Profile photo of Beryl
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Searching the internet for self-diagnosis or a particular remedy I agree is not always a good idea and should always be discussed with your GP before embarking on any potential treatment, but lets not ignore the invaluable ongoing research carried out by scientists who spend their entire lives looking to find cures for common ailments and health disorders.

Scientists have discovered and are currently researching a gene, BACH2 which may play a central role in the development of diverse allergic and autoimmune disorders. “People with minor variations in the BACH2 gene often develop allergic or autoimmune disorders and that a common factor in these diseases is a compromised immune system.” You can read the whole report @ nih.gov/news/health/jan2013/nci-02.htm – Scientists Find Link Between Allergic and Autoimmune Diseases.

As I suffer from both an autoimmune genetically inherited thyroid problem plus various allergies, including hayfever, hives and penicillin and shellfish allergies, I am hoping to attend a Lecture in Oxford on this very subject on this coming Thursday evening.

There is a list of certain foods that contain a lot of histamine which can be found on the internet and may help to reduce hayfever symptoms if avoided. Its important to remember also that there is a difference between allergies and food intolerances.