Choosing Your Allergist

An allergist (also known as an immunologist) is a physician who has completed an additional two to three years of training in the field of asthma, allergy, and immunology. They can help patients who are suffering from asthma, hay fever, sinus infections, food allergies, eczema, and more.

If you have anything more than mild allergies that are easily treated with over-the-counter medication, you should see an allergist. The allergist will confirm exactly what kind of allergy you have through diagnostic testing (a skin test or a blood test) and then put you on a treatment plan—a mixture of lifestyle adjustments, home changes, shots, pills, or nasal sprays.

Why see an allergist over your primary care doctor?

“It can be hard to tell the difference between allergies and other conditions like a cold. And unfortunately, many primary care physicians aren’t trained at all in allergies,” says Dr. Michael Foggs, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s board member and past chair of the Managed Care and Health Plans Committee. “So if you show up at your internist’s office with a chronic runny nose and watery eyes, he might just recommend over-the-counter medications. On the other hand, an allergist will be able to tell you what exactly you’re allergic to, when you’re likely to expect symptoms, and alternative treatment options.”

What to Look For

“The most important thing you need to do is ensure your allergist is board-certified,” says Dr. Sakina Bajowala, a fellow at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. “That means they’ve completed an additional two to three years of fellowship training and passed a rigorous board certification exam.” This qualifies them to treat allergic diseases, asthma, and diseases of the immune system.

“It’s the best measure of finding out whether the allergist you’re considering going to is truly a specialist and expert,” she says. The ACAAI doesn’t allow an allergist to join the organization unless they’re board-certified, so by launching your search process on their consumer website, www.allergyandasthmarelief.org, you’ll get a list of allergists who have already met that criterion.

Dr. Foggs also says it shows a certain level of involvement in the field if the doctor is an officer of an organization, serves on boards of an academic journal, or has recently been published. These things you can typically find out by searching for information about the doctor online.

Another thing to think about is if you have other issues you want the allergist to be knowledgeable about. Say you have multiple medical problems, like high cholesterol and diabetes. In that case, look for an allergist who was trained in internal medicine so they have a grasp of what other medications you’re on.

“I like asking your primary care physician for a referral,” says Dr. Bajowala. “They know who has a good reputation in your area and who other patients rave about.”

Questions to Ask

Before going in to meet an allergist for the first time, call up the office and ask a few questions. “Make sure to ask who your visits are typically going to be with,” says Dr. Bajowala. “If it’s a big office, you might only see the allergist on your first visit and then see physician’s assistants on subsequent ones. Some people don’t mind, but if you do, you should find out before going in.” And with any doctor who you’re going to be working closely with, bedside manner is always an issue, so it might take one or two visits to know if an allergist is going to work or not.