Maybe it's the phrase "skin prick" or the pictures of huge, angry red welts covering people's backs. Whatever it is, something gets us really worked up about skin allergy tests. But experts want us to know: It's time to take down our skin test anxiety a few notches.
"Most people are way more worried about this than they need to be — it's just not that big a deal," says J. Allen Meadows, MD, chair of the advocacy council of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. In reality, the testing itself takes up a fraction of your appointment time and, in most cases, you don't need to worry about a scary allergic reaction.
Before you even get to the test, Dr. Meadows says your allergist will go through an extensive consultation to figure out the best plan of attack (allergy tests aren't one-size-fits-all). That initial chat will probably cover what you think you might be allergic to, how likely it is for you to come into contact with those allergens, where on your body the testing should take place, and whether or not you're already on an allergy treatment plan.
If you're really nervous about the test, your allergist can also use this time to show you what it looks like. "I demonstrate it on my arm," Dr. Meadows says. "And when people see what it actually looks like, it's a relief. They're pleased to see there's no needle involved."
So what does happen? Essentially, your allergist will decide on a bunch of allergens (up to 40) to test out. Then you'll be turned over to a technician who will actually administer the test. That person will put marks on your skin (usually your forearm or back) to keep track of what's being tested. Then she'll use a plastic scratcher to apply just a little bit of each allergen to that area. It may feel weird, but it won't be painful — it's more like scratching an itch than getting a shot.
After letting the allergens sit on your skin for about 15 minutes so your body has time to react, your allergist will interpret your results and help you figure out what needs to happen next.
If you're getting tested for a potential drug or insect allergy or your initial skin test was unclear, that might include further testing that actually goes under your skin (in other words: an injection), explains Dr. Meadows. Those who have skin conditions or take medications that interfere with skin testing may instead get a blood allergy test, meaning you'll have your blood drawn and it'll be tested in a lab. But for most patients, skin prick testing is all it takes to figure out the next course of action.