How to Get Your Baby Tested for Allergies

Allergy testing for babies may seems scary, but not it's not as scary – or as awful – as anaphylaxis.

Allergy blood tests have come a long way recently, but allergy testing in babies can still be an ordeal – not to mention an unnecessary cost. But allergies are no joke, and food allergies can be fatal, so if a kid starts showing symptoms of an allergic reaction, parents should speak to their pediatrician immediately.

“For a baby, the first sign might be eczema,” says Sonal Patel, M.D., double-board certified in allergy and clinical immunology as well as pediatrics, and author of The Mommy MD Guide to Twins, Triplets. and More. “When solids are started, you may notice an immediate reaction with redness, swelling, or difficulty breathing after introducing a new food. Other signs can include asthma or wheezing. Older children may see hay-fever-like symptoms with chronic congestion, rhinorrhea, and sneezing, as well.”

A severe rash or respiratory distress warrants emergency intervention, but even a mild reaction should be reported to the pediatrician – the next reaction may be more severe.

Getting Babies Tested for Allergies

  • Allergy testing – both food and environmental allergies can be tested by skin tests and blood tests. Skin tests require a series of small scratches or pricks to be made in the skin, whereas blood tests require blood to be drawn.
  • Testing shows food allergies, not intolerances – food testing identifies an IgE mediated sensitivity, meaning exposure might send those patients into anaphylaxis. It does not test for food intolerances or sensitivities. 
  • Allergy testing cost – allergy testing is usually covered by insurance. Cost may vary depending on where the doctor is and the insurance they accept, as well as on how many allergens are being tested for. 

For previous generations of allergy sufferers, allergy testing involved a skin prick test – a grid is drawn on the child’s skin, and a series of needles apply a minute amount of allergens to specific squares. A skin reaction is usually seen within 15 minutes. It sounds pretty unpleasant, and it can be. But some doctors now prefer ImmunoCAP blood tests over skin prick tests, at least for babies. Not necessarily because the ImmunoCAP is less invasive – blood is still being drawn. The reason is much more practical.

“Babies have a smaller surface area, so you really can’t test for too many allergens,” Dr. Patel explains. “Some babies need a routine blood test for their one-year physical to check for anemia – it may be a good time to add the allergy test, so the baby doesn’t have to be poked an extra time.”

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An allergist may still opt for the skin prick test; neither the blood draw nor the skin prick test is as painful as being vaccinated, says Dr. Patel. But they are certainly uncomfortable ordeals in hospitals that can be frightening to a child. 

“Parents should expect that their children will be scared,” cautions Dr. Patel. “Of course, with a blood draw, there is pain associated. The skin testing, in my opinion, is less painful than a blood draw, especially if using the multi-test. But it still is uncomfortable and scary for the patient, so most children do cry.” 

Parents shouldn’t be reluctant to have their child tested for allergies – even if an undiagnosed allergic reaction isn’t severe enough to endanger a baby’s life, it sure is enough to make them irritable and fussy. After all, they don’t have many ways to communicate that they don’t feel well. So it may very well be worth trading off an uncomfortable appointment at the allergist for a calmer, happier baby at home.

If parent’s want to make the process as easy as possible, there should prepare their children before an allergy test – and they should prepare themselves, too. If a child is too young to understand what is happening, they will look to their parents for comfort. “I think it’s important to prepare children beforehand, with an honest answer that it’s going to be uncomfortable or painful. Showing them videos often helps. Letting them bring their favorite blanket or stuffed animal helps, and there is something called the Buzzy Bee which helps reduce pain,” explains Dr. Sonal. “But the most important thing is how the parents respond. They need to keep calm and be able to soothe their child.”