How Food Allergies Are Diagnosed

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To diagnose food allergies, your healthcare provider first will talk to you about your reactions to certain foods and conduct a physical exam and detailed medical history. Skin prick tests or blood tests can be used to check for reactions to specific food allergens. An oral food challenge may be done if other testing is inconclusive. Ultimately, your practitioner will use all this information to diagnose you with food allergies.

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Self-Checks/At-Home Testing

Your healthcare provider will likely ask you to take several steps at home that will help determine if you have a food allergy. These steps include keeping a food and symptom diary and, perhaps, participating in an elimination diet—both of which can provide helpful diagnostic information.

Keeping a Food Diary

If your healthcare provider is unsure whether food is the cause of your symptoms, he or she may recommend that you keep a food diary. A food diary can also be used to monitor dietary patterns to better pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.

The diary should be a complete record of not only the foods you've eaten over a given period of time (usually a week), but also an accurate record of the timing and characteristics of any symptoms you may have experienced.

Your healthcare provider may go so far as to ask you to record any activities you may have done prior to your symptoms to assess whether they may have contributed. In some cases, stress and physical exertion can play as much a role in your symptoms as the foods you eat.

A food diary is often used in combination with other diagnostic tools or as a first step in opening an investigation.

Elimination Diets

Your healthcare provider may place you on an elimination diet to help pinpoint a food allergy.

While practitioners will conduct an elimination diet in different ways, the basics are similar: Exclude the foods you suspect are causing your symptoms, take note of how you feel, and then reintroduce the foods after several days or weeks to see if symptoms reappear.

Elimination diets should only be done in consultation with your allergist, who should recommend what to avoid and for how long. Never reintroduce a food you suspect as having triggered an anaphylactic reaction.

Staying on an elimination diet might lead to nutritional imbalance.

What About At-Home Testing Kits?

You may be tempted to use at-home kits that test for food allergies. If you do so, keep in mind that concerns over their accuracy have been raised, as they test for the wrong type of antibodies (IgG instead of IgE) and are often falsely positive. This might lead you to unnecessarily avoid healthful foods.

Labs and Tests

Your medical history can help your allergist pinpoint potential allergens and choose which testing methods might be most appropriate. These can include blood tests and skin tests. An oral food challenge may be used to confirm a diagnosis.

Prick Test

A prick test (also called a scratch test or a skin test) is often used to test a number of potential allergens at one time. Despite the name, this isn't a painful test, and it can provide a lot of information fairly quickly.

To perform a series of prick tests, your allergist will use either the thin skin of your forearm or your back. A drop of a solution that includes the food allergen is placed on the skin. The allergist lightly scratches the skin to allow for a very minimal amount of the solution to enter just below the surface.

If the test is positive, you'll develop a hive, or wheal (a raised white bump surrounded by a circle of itchy skin), in the area of the prick or scratch. All prick testing is done within your healthcare provider's office under close supervision, in case you have a serious allergic reaction.

Prick tests can provide lots of useful information, but sometimes they simply raise questions. An inconclusive prick test will usually be followed by a more sensitive test.

Blood Tests

Blood tests are used to test for food allergies that are IgE-mediated, which are usually those with rapid onset after exposure (acute reactions), as opposed to food allergies that have delayed reactions. The name of the test is often related to the method used: for example, immunoCAP, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), or radioallergosorbent (RAST) test.

To perform the test, your healthcare provider will draw a sample of your blood. With these tests, you never have to be exposed to the allergen directly; instead, your blood is exposed to it in the lab. A positive test result indicates that the body has produced antibodies to an allergen and is primed for a reaction.

These blood tests are accurate and can help in situations where a skin test isn't recommended—for example, to determine if a child has outgrown a serious allergy or when a patient has severe eczema or another skin condition. However, they do have some downsides. They're more expensive than skin prick tests, and they take days or weeks (as opposed to minutes) to produce results.

Oral Food Challenge

In a food challenge, you ingest suspected allergens and are observed over a number of hours to determine whether you have an allergic reaction. An oral food challenge is risky and always should be carried out under close medical supervision, but it will show the presence of an allergy conclusively.

You should never attempt an oral food challenge without consulting with your healthcare provider since you could have a serious allergic reaction.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, an oral food challenge is the only test that confirms a food allergy.


Imaging is not typically used in diagnosing food allergies. Endoscopy and biopsy might be recommended if you are experiencing digestive tract bleeding, chronic constipation or diarrhea, or severe persistent stomach pain. That said, this study is more typically used to check for celiac disease, which is an autoimmune reaction to gluten.

Using an endoscope, a flexible tube with a light and camera, your healthcare provider can view images of your small intestine on a digital monitor and take a sample of tissue (biopsy) for evaluation in the lab. For this test, the endoscope is lowered into the stomach, usually through your esophagus.

Differential Diagnoses

It is very common for people with symptoms of a food allergy to actually have a different condition. The suspect food may indeed be a trigger of unpleasant symptoms, but the reaction is not allergic in nature. For example, gastric reflux can be provoked by some foods, and some people have irritant reactions to hot or spicy foods (including a runny nose).

In the case of a severe acute reaction, a food allergy might be suspected but the healthcare provider will want to explore whether the true allergen was instead a medication, insect sting, etc. Food poisoning can often mimic a food allergy and should always be considered.

Lactose intolerance is a common problem that can mimic food allergies. According to research, up to 36% of Americans have some level of lactose malabsorption, as measured in a hydrogen breath test. While many will have mild to severe lactose intolerance symptoms (bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea after consuming milk products), others will have no symptoms at all.

In children, atopic dermatitis may be associated with food allergies, but an eczema flare might be due to other factors such as irritants, humidity, or skin infection.

A Word From Verywell

Symptoms of food allergy often appear hours after you've eaten, so trying to pin cause to effect is not always easy. Diagnosing a food allergy is ultimately a process of trial and error, and there is no pretending that it's easy. Your best bet is to follow your healthcare provider's advice diligently, even if it means enduring some inconvenience or avoiding go-to foods for a while. If you are patient and remain diligent, you are more likely to find the cause of your problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How are food allergies diagnosed?

    Food allergies are typically diagnosed by an allergist, who will review your symptoms and medical history and perform some or all of the following tests:

    • Skin prick test
    • Food-specific antibody (IgE) blood tests
    • Elimination diet
    • Oral food challenge
  • What blood tests are used to diagnose food allergies?

    Radioallergosorbent testing (RAST) is a blood test used to detect antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). If you have a food allergy, there will be IgE specific to that specific food in your bloodstream. There is also a version called the CAP-RAST that not only detects but measures the amount of IgE in your body. It is considered the gold standard for IgE blood testing.

  • How accurate are food allergy tests?

    Skin prick testing is highly sensitive (meaning few false negatives) in the low to mid 90% range. Specificity (chance of false positives) is in the 50-60% range. Sensitivity of CAP-RAST is in the 70-80% range with specificity also in the 50-60% range. Skin testing is the better test, with oral challenge being the gold standard.

  • When is an elimination diet used to diagnose food allergies?

    An elimination diet may be recommended if skin prick and blood tests are unable to identify your food triggers. An elimination diet involves the removal of suspect foods from your diet and the gradual reintroduction of those foods to see which ones trigger a reaction.

  • When is an oral food challenge used to diagnose food allergies?

    Oral food challenges are more commonly used when a non-IgE-mediated food allergy is suspected. Because IgE is not involved, many of the traditional tests are of little to no use. Oral food challenges involve feeding someone suspect foods to see if a reaction occurs. It is only performed under controlled conditions in a healthcare provider’s office.

  • Are there home tests for food allergies?

    There are, but they are generally unhelpful in diagnosing food allergies. This is because most are designed to detect immunoglobulin G (IgG) rather than IgE. Because the immune system produces IgG in response to a lot of different foreign substances, a positive result does not necessarily mean that food is the cause of an allergy.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Storhaug CL, Fosse SK, Fadnes LT. Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017;2(10):738-746. doi:10.1016/S2468-1253(17)30154-1

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By Victoria Groce
Victoria Groce is a medical writer living with celiac disease who specializes in writing about dietary management of food allergies.