32 Needles: Allergy Tests at Northwestern

Over the past few years, my allergies have gotten progressively worse. I used to have hay fever as a kid, but then it sort of went away as I got older. In the past 5 years or so, I’d say my spring/fall allergies started to flare up again.

For the most part, I just sort of toughed through those phases. For a few weeks, I just tended to sneeze a lot if I was outdoors. But since I spend most of my time inside, in an office, it seemed fairly tolerable.

This year things were a bit more pronounced and Liz urged me to go see an allergist, and to get tested. I set up an appointment to meet with her allergist, Dr. Paul Greenberger at Northwestern.

Going in, all I knew was that I would be stuck by a ton of needles. Allergy test = people jabbing you. So the moment I stepped into the offices, I was a little nervous.

At first, I met with a young doctor named Dr. Cho, who took down a lot of my history and information. We talked about my symptoms, when they tend to occur, etc. After he spoke with me for a while, he then led me to the testing area.

On walking in, it was a narrow room. On the left, there were a series of chairs positioned with their backs to the walls (two women were seated, with their arms laid out in front of them). Across the room from the chairs was a sink, two refrigerators, and a few nurses setting up test samples.

The tests, as I understood it, were to see just what exactly I was allergic to. I wasn’t able to write down much of the details, as the nurses were talking to me while performing the tests. I also wasn’t able to get a lot of photos other than just shots (no pun intended) of my arms.

This was the first test. You can’t see it, but there are additional lines on my upper right arm as well (I had to roll up my sleeve). I got tagged a total of 26 times I think, once on each side of the line.

This shot was taken by my nurse, Margie, who was kind enough to snap a photo right after the test was administered. Honestly, these shots didn’t hurt much at all.

These weren’t actual shots or needles in the regular sense. Think something like a small, thin cylinder that they just press into your arm. There were one or two that pinched a bit more than the others… but they were akin to someone tapping me on the arm with their fingernail. Not much pain at all.

About a minute into things, my arm started to get pretty itchy. While it wasn’t excruciating, it was slightly annoying to have to just sit there, not be able to do anything, and let these areas itch.

At the end of the 20-minute waiting period after the shots. A few areas showed a greater allergic reaction (I think one of these was a histamine control, to ensure I hadn’t taken any sort of allergy medicine prior to).

For the results that came up negative, they had to do what was called an “intradermal” shot.

THESE were actual needles, each and every one. Eight total.

When I asked the nurse to take a photo of the tray of needles, she balked. I’m not sure why, but she said she didn’t want me taking photos of those. Which is a shame, because let me tell you… that was a pretty daunting image, particularly since I knew I was going to get hit with all those suckers in a few seconds.

Again, not too much pain with these. There was an ever-so-slight sense of pressure, but no feeling of “biting” or “stinging” with the needle. I was told that each injection would cause a small area to swell up (above) but that it should die down soon after if I wasn’t allergic.

I wanted to film the process, but couldn’t manage the camera with just one hand. All these shots (except for the first one) were done by me, with one hand. But it was more or less a crapshoot as to whether they’d turn out or not. While I was getting the needle treatment, I ended up looking away the whole time. Squeamish or not, I just didn’t care to see it actually happening to my arm.

Another 20 minutes later – the sucker on the bottom right ballooned up, and the rest were only semi-itchy. Again, not a terrible time waiting… just slightly uncomfortable.

Here’s the tally of what I’m technically allergic to:

Tree-Elm: 1+
Tree-Hickory-Shagbark: 1+
Tree-Maple, Box Elder: 1+
Grass-Bermuda Grass: 3+
Weed, Ragweed Giant: 4+
Weed, Ragweed Short: 4+
Control-Histamine: 4+
Mite: 4+

In talking with Dr. Greenberger (and his assistant Dr. Cho), I learned that the Tree/pollen season is about March – June for the Midwest. For grasses, the peak times are from May 15 – July 15 (the phrase Dr. Greenberger used was “like clockwork”). And ragweed is from mid August – September.

Dr. Greenberger knows his stuff. As he was talking to me about my symptoms and my allergies, he was also “quizzing” Dr. Cho regarding certain combinations and reactions. It was a little uncomfortable at times, as I felt he was putting Dr. Cho on the spot… but I learned some neat things regarding seasonal allergies. And also that some fruits, when combined with certain types of allergens, can cause interesting cross-reactions.

Currently, I’m not getting too many problems with allergies… as the window has more or less passed. So I have a prescription for Allegra, along with a nose spray, that I can choose to fulfill or hold on to, until next Spring. I guess we’ll see how the fall goes, come ragweed season.

Oh, and time for some dust mite covers, apparently. Liz has one for her pillow, but I guess I’m needing one now too.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. What do the numbers with the + signs mean?

    juliet Reply

  2. I think the numbers represent the degree/severity of my reaction to a particular allergen. The values seem to range from 0, 1+, 2+, 3+, 4+.Even with that huge reaction on my arm to dust mites, it only garnered a 4+.

    avoision Reply

  3. 4+ is the largest reaction possible. So once the reaction reaches a certain “size”, no matter how much larger, it’s always a 4+.This test can be very subjective. Also, there are different strains of the same allergen one can be tested with also. For instance 3 years ago I was tested as 4+ to rabbits, while 1.5 years ago I had a 1+ reaction. (Either I have built up an immunity or the different location tested with me with a different strain of rabbit.)

    liz Reply

  4. I found this site while looking into the benefits of non-food allergy tests. So basically you went through all that to find out what you already knew.. If the only real remedy is allergy medicine, I’ll just take allergy medicine and not bother with getting tested

    anon Reply

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