Approaches to testing for food and chemical sensitivities

Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2003 Oct;36(5):917-40. doi: 10.1016/s0030-6665(03)00059-8.


Testing for food and chemical sensitivities usually becomes necessary as part of the evaluation of otolaryngology patients who have chronic illness. The more complex the patient, and the more recalcitrant the problem is to treatment, the more likely it is that allergies, and especially food or chemical sensitivities, are involved in the pathogenesis of the illness. Failure to consider all major allergen contacts, including foods and chemicals, can lead to inadequate therapy. Similarly, failure to understand total allergic and oxidant load and the effects of chemical toxicity can lead to inappropriate or ineffective treatment. Clinically, food allergies occur in two different types: immediate, anaphylactic, fixed reactions and delayed, chronic, cyclic reactions. Different test methods have been developed for the two types. Fixed food allergies can be safely and efficiently detected by in vitro specific IgE or histamine release tests. Cyclic food allergies are best detected by either oral food challenges or by the IPDFT test. Choosing the best test for a particular patient requires a clear understanding of the two food allergy types and how their clinical presentations differ. Other tests for food allergies are compared and contrasted with these primary tests. Chemical sensitivity also occurs in two different clinical types: allergic, and toxic. True allergy to chemical haptens, either type I, IgE-mediated, or type IV, delayed hypersensitivity, occurs with significant frequency but is often unsuspected. Chemical toxicity can be caused by the aftereffects of an acute exposure or as a result of chronic, low-level exposure, but is even more frequently unsuspected and will not be diagnosed without a high index of suspicion. Both types of chemical sensitivity need to be addressed in any patients who have either a high allergen or chemical exposure load [105]. Either in vitro or in vivo tests can be used for chemical allergy detection; the advantages of each are outlined. Chemical toxicity screening tests are available and useful but do not detect all possible toxicants. Definitive toxic chemical tests usually require specialized laboratory facilities and expert consultation, for which possible sources are specified. The most important point in testing for food or chemical sensitivity is to be aware that food or chemical sensitivity can be contributing to a specific patient's clinical problems. Only then can appropriate investigations be undertaken to understand and then, perhaps, to intervene successfully in that illness.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / toxicity
  • Biogenic Amines / adverse effects
  • Food Additives / adverse effects
  • Food Hypersensitivity / diagnosis*
  • Food Hypersensitivity / immunology
  • Food Hypersensitivity / therapy
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin E / immunology
  • Medical History Taking / standards
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / diagnosis*
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / immunology
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / therapy
  • Radioallergosorbent Test
  • Skin Tests* / methods


  • Air Pollutants
  • Biogenic Amines
  • Food Additives
  • Immunoglobulin E