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Allergies are a major source of modern parental anxiety. And that’s very understandable. It's easy enough to think about the life-threatening illnesses like polio, TB and diphtheria that ravaged previous generations, and say that modern parents are worried about allergies because they don’t have anything more serious to hang their parental anxieties on. But if you know someone who's been hospitalized by an asthma attack, or who carries an Epipen because chillies, peanuts or almonds could kill them in minutes, it’s a different story. Allergies can be really scary stuff.
The trouble emerges when parents are convinced their kids have allergies and doctors aren’t so sure. All too often, parents go with their gut instead of getting another medical opinion, and the result is reliance on home testing kits that promise to “find out what’s wrong” (even if nothing is) and don’t have a solid scientific basis. In other words, frightened by medicine, parents buy snake oil.
That’s what happened with the anti-vaxx movement and it’s what’s happening now with allergies.
Allergy Home Testing Kits
Home testing kits are a booming business, especially in the UK where I’m from. And it's no surprise that they find what they’re looking for more often than doctors do: so do psychics, ghost hunters, homeopaths and so forth. Sometimes that’s because they present real findings in a false light. One example is the York test. Ths looks for elevated IgG antibodies in the blood, and that's fine: IgG might really be elevated. The problem arises when that’s interpreted to mean that person has an allergy, when the scientific evidence says something very different.
Sense About Science publishes a guide about allergies and home testing which points out that “the best medical evidence has shown elevated IgG levels do not suggest an allergy” since “results are frequently positive in individuals who do not have an allergy or a food intolerance.”
Another popular test is the Vega test which combines homeopathy with acupuncture by testing electrical conductivity across the skin while the person being tested holds the suspected food in their hand. That’s about as effective as it sounds, which is to say not at all. Finally hair follicle testing which is also popular comes in for especially definite condemnation from Sense About Science. “Hair is not involved in allergic reactions so testing hair samples cannot provide any useful information on allergic status,” the guide states, adding equally unequivocally that no one should be seduced into thinking there’s any connection between allergies and some kind of “energy blockage” curable by acupuncture.
Mistrust Of Doctors
One of the major causes of this outbreak of illogic is mistrust of doctors. That’s less frequently a result of personal experience with being let down by the medical profession, and more part of a general cultural shift toward seeing medical intervention and science as mechanical, cold and inimical to life, while “natural” or “traditional” treatments are safer, more benevolent and more effective. Where that comes from and what to do about it are beyond the scope of this article, but it can’t be ignored.
Another major issue is the hazy public understanding of the difference between an allergy and a food or substance intolerance. Food intolerances are fairly common. Symptoms can include bloating, gastrointestinal pain and distress, joint pain and rashes.Something to be avoided, certainly, but not life threatening. Allergies can kill in minutes. We're not talking about discomfort, we’re talking about adrenaline injections. There’s a big, big difference.