High Immunoglobulin (IgE) Levels

IgE antibodies can increase with allergic asthma, infection, and more

Asthma can be described as allergic or non-allergic. Allergic (extrinsic) asthma is associated with immunoglobulin E (IgE)—an antibody generated by the immune system, in this case, in response to a normally harmless substance. In contrast, non-allergic (intrinsic) asthma episodes are not typically triggered by exposure to a substance and are not associated with IgE.

IgE plays a key role in allergic responses, however it can sometimes be elevated for other reasons, such as chronic infections or inflammatory diseases. Additional testing is often needed and depends on symptoms.

Children who have asthma are more likely to have elevated IgE levels than adults with asthma. Asthma that begins for the first time during adulthood, called adult-onset asthma, is more likely to be intrinsic, non-allergic asthma.

Given the role of IgE in certain asthma cases, treatment may involve an anti-IgE medication to lower amounts of this antibody and its effects. A blood test to check your levels can help determine whether this may or may not be useful in your case.

Doctor giving patient blood test for IgE levels
Philippe Roy / Getty Images

The Role of IgE

IgE is naturally produced by B cell lymphocytes, a type of immune white blood cell. This antibody normally activates physical responses to help your body fight infections.

For some people, exposure to allergens—which are harmless, non-infectious substances (like dust or pollen)—can also trigger the body to produce and release IgE.

In these situations, IgE antibodies bind to the allergen and trigger an inflammatory response that can manifest with allergy symptoms such as a skin rash, sneezing, and swollen lips. When it results in asthma, it is considered the allergic type.

Common allergens include:

When your body releases IgE, a cascade of immune responses follows, some of which are mediated by other immune cells in the body. IgE is believed to bind to and activate several types of immune cells, such as:

When IgE binds with any of these cells, it can overstimulate your immune system. Additionally, your capillaries widen and become leakier, increasing inflammation by allowing the immune cells to cluster around the allergen.

Symptoms Caused by Excess IgE

When you have allergic asthma, your bronchi (airways) can become narrow and inflamed due to the rush of immune cells—and this rapidly exacerbates your asthma symptoms.

Not only do the inflammatory cells prevent air from passing through your airways, but your airways may also suddenly spasm, making it difficult for air to pass as you try to breathe.

Increased levels of IgE may contribute to symptoms of asthma, such as: 

  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Recurrent cough

The symptoms are usually mild, but they can be quite severe and may cause serious consequences, such as a life-threatening respiratory crisis.

Diagnosis

If have not yet been formally diagnosed with asthma, your healthcare provider will review your specific symptoms. Those that suggest an allergic cause of your asthma include itchy eyes, nausea, sneezing, coughing, and congestion.

Sometimes the pattern of symptoms can point to allergic asthma when symptoms tend to occur in relation to allergen exposure. Allergy testing can help identify what may be triggering your condition.

IgE Testing

If there is a concern that you have allergic asthma, your healthcare provider might test your IgE level to help make a diagnosis and to help guide your treatment plan. Your healthcare provider will consider your results in the context of your symptoms and ot her diagnostic measures.

High IgE Levels

The most common cause of high IgE levels are allergic conditions. A high IgE level can't confirm a diagnosis of asthma. High IgE can only suggest that you may have some sort of allergic disorder.

However, antibody levels can vary, and your IgE level might be normal even if you have allergic asthma.

There can also be other reasons for abnormal immunoglobulin E levels.

Allergic Conditions

There are many types of allergic responses that may lead to high IgE levels. These include:

An elevated IgE level supports the diagnosis of allergic asthma but does not give an indication of what the trigger(s) of your attacks could be.

Infections

Parasitic infections are the most common type of infection associated with high IgE levels, but it can also occur along with certain viral, bacterial, or fungal infections.

Infections associated with high IgE include:

Autoimmune and Inflammatory Diseases

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. Inflammatory diseases are when there is an excess immune response that leads to inflammation. These can also be associated with high IgE.

Examples include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that often affects joints
  • Lupus, an autoimmune disease that can affect tissues and organs
  • Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that leads to damage of the small intestine from an immune response to gluten
  • Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that causes vasculitis (an inflammation of blood vessels)
  • Kawasaki disease, a rare inflammatory condition in children under age 5 that may be due to an infection and can affect the heart
  • Kimura disease, an inflammatory condition that causes swelling under the skin of the head and neck

Some immunodeficiencies, or conditions that impair the immune system's ability to fend off infections, may also contribute to high IgE.

Blood-Related Cancers

High IgE is also associated with certain blood-related cancers. This includes Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that starts in the lymph nodes, and IgE myeloma, a rare type of cancer that affects a type of white blood cells in bone marrow.

Other Conditions

There are some other conditions and behaviors associated with high Ige:

Treatment for High IgE Levels

There are a number of treatments for allergic asthma, including avoiding allergens that are asthma triggers, if possible. However, it is not always possible to avoid allergens, especially if they are highly prevalent in the environment.

Inhalers containing immunosuppressants or bronchodilators are commonly used to treat allergic asthma. 

Treatment with anti-IgE is another approach that can be used along with bronchodilators. Your IgE level can help your healthcare provider determine whether you might benefit from treatment that can lower IgE. But a high level is not a requirement for treatment with an anti-IgE.

Your healthcare provider might consider this if your asthma is persistent or if you have side effects from your treatment. Reducing your IgE, if elevated, is a more targeted method of preventing symptoms of allergic asthma than immunosuppression with steroids, which has long been a way of managing asthma by reducing inflammation.

Xolair (omalizumab) is an anti-IgE medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of allergic asthma for adults and children over the age of 6. It binds to IgE antibodies to reduce their effects and help prevent (though not treat) allergic asthma attacks.

Indications for Xolair include:

  • Severe or persistent asthma that's inadequately controlled with inhaled corticosteroids and a positive skin test or positive blood allergy test
  • Chronic skin rash that's inadequately controlled with antihistamines

Xolair is given every two to four weeks as a subcutaneous (under the skin) injection administered by a healthcare provider. Side effects can include injection site reactions, infections, headaches, and sore throat.

A Word From Verywell

Allergic asthma is caused by an overreaction to one or more specific allergens, and you are likely to experience symptoms every time you are exposed to them. High levels of IgE can support a diagnosis of allergic asthma, and anti-IgE medication may help control your symptoms.

If you are already on an allergic asthma treatment plan without adequate control of your asthma, speak with your healthcare provider about your persistent symptoms. You may benefit from revising your treatment approach.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens if IgE is too high?

    In the case of allergies and allergic asthma, it sets off a chain of events that contributes to symptoms, such as a runny nose or cough.

  • What is the main function of IgE?

    It plays a primary role in triggering inflammation in an immune response to an allergen and in defending against parasites.

  • What foods increase IgE?

    This depends on what (if anything) you are allergic to. For example, if you are allergic to peanuts, cow's milk, eggs, or soy, IgE may increase if you consume it.

  • What is a normal immunoglobulin E level?

    A normal range for immunoglobulin E is typically between 4 kU/1 and 100 kU/1 for adults. For children, normal ranges vary based on age.

  • What are the five immunoglobulins and what are they used for?
    • IgA is found in mucosal tissue, such as the respiratory tract and digestive system, and defends against infections.
    • IgD binds to B cells to initiate an immune response but its role is not well understood. It is found in small amounts in blood.
    • IgG is the most common type of antibody. It is found in blood and bodily fluids and defends against viruses and bacteria.
    • IgA is part of allergic reactions and defends against parasites. It is found in small amounts in blood.
    • IgM is the first to fight infections and help trigger release of other antibodies. It is found in blood and lymph fluid.
  • Can high IgE cause fatigue?

    High IgE may contribute to fatigue due to its role in triggering an inflammatory response. However, low IgE is more strongly associated with this symptom.

  • Do antihistamines lower IgE?

    They may, but they do not target IgE directly. Antihistamines block the receptor for histamine, a substance released during an allergic response that contributes to allergy symptoms.

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