Allergy Causes & Symptoms

How Do I Know What I’m Allergic To? And Does It Even Matter?

Image of a woman wearing a sunhat holding a bouquet of flowers.
Photo by Alex Tan via Death to Stock

This probably sounds familiar: “Don’t worry, it’s just my allergies.”

It’s not as often that you hear someone get really specific with a statement like, “Don’t worry, it’s just that tree pollen counts are really high right now and that always triggers my allergy symptoms.”

Why? Well, because a lot of people don’t actually know what they’re allergic to.

Sure, you’re probably able to tell when you’re experiencing allergic reaction symptoms, which include a runny or stuffy nose, itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, and breathing problems.

Maybe you’ve even been able to narrow down to a smaller list of potential allergens. But, actually pinpointing the culprit of your sniffling and sneezing takes a little more detective work.

How do I figure out what I’m allergic to?

You already know that your answer to the dreaded “do I have an allergy?” question is a resounding “yes.” You’re positive that you’ve had allergic reactions before.

But, how do you figure out exactly what kick starts your symptoms? There are a couple of different methods you can try.

1. Pay close attention to timing and environment

When and where your allergic reaction symptoms occur can tell you a lot about what you’re allergic to.

With regard to seasonal allergies, different outdoor allergens are more prevalent at certain times of the year. So, if you tend to be sniffling and sneezing in the summer as opposed to the fall, that will help you rule out some triggers.

Similarly to timing, your environment can also clue you in. Do you find yourself feeling miserable after spending time with a friend who has a cat? Pet dander might be to blame. Did you recently spend time helping a loved one clean out their damp basement? Mold could be high on your list of potential allergens.

Feeling like you have no idea? Allergist and Picnic Medical Director, Dr. Amina Abdeldaim recommends that you “keep a symptom diary to look for trends or patterns, even if it’s just in the notes app on your phone.”

This isn’t a foolproof system, but some diligent observation will help you get a better understanding of what’s behind your allergy symptoms. Even if you can’t pinpoint it yourself, it’s helpful information to bring to a doctor or allergist.

2. Talk to your family

You don’t want to blame everything on your mom and dad, but some research suggests that seasonal allergies could be hereditary.

Ask your parents and siblings if they experience allergies, and if so, if they have any idea what they’re allergic to. If one of them has a strong reaction to grass pollen, for example, the same could potentially be true for you.

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3. Get an allergy test

When it comes to figure out exactly what you’re allergic to, allergy testing is your best, most foolproof bet. This isn’t something you can do yourself—you'll need an allergist.

As the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology explains, allergy testing can be performed with either a skin test or, in some cases, a blood test. Here are the details:

Skin tests: These are performed by exposing your skin to various common allergens. Skin tests can be done two different ways:

  • Prick test: A doctor will prick the surface of your skin on the inside of your arm with a needle that contains a small amount of a suspected allergen. If your skin turns red or swells up at that site, you’re having an allergic reaction.
  • Intradermal test: A doctor will use a very small needle to inject a small amount of the allergen under the first few layers of your skin. This is typically done if a prick test is inconclusive.

Blood tests: Most allergists opt for skin tests, as they’re more sensitive. But, in cases where people can’t have a skin test done (such as very sensitive skin, skin conditions, or medications that could interfere), a doctor will draw a small sample of blood where it’s analyzed for specific allergens.

Before completing allergy testing, a doctor or allergist will ask you about your family history, medical history, and symptoms. So, that’s why the previous two steps are still helpful—even if an allergy test is ultimately more reliable.

What are the most common allergens?

Here’s the truth: There’s no shortage of things that you could potentially be allergic to. Let’s look at some of the most common allergens in two different categories: outdoor allergens and indoor allergens.

Outdoor allergens:

Indoor allergens:

Of course, food can also be another common allergen. However, those symptoms are usually different and more severe than airborne allergens (like an itchy mouth or even facial swelling), making them easier to identify.

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What do I do once I know what I’m allergic to?

Is it even worth going through the trouble to figure out what you’re allergic to? Here’s the short answer: yes.

We get that the idea talking to your relatives about their own symptoms or tracking your symptoms doesn’t sound like a great time, but knowing your allergy triggers is helpful for tackling your next steps, including:

Finding the most effective treatment: There are a number of different medications—from nasal sprays to eye drops to antihistamines—that can help you reduce the severity of your allergy symptoms (or prevent them entirely). These medications will be helpful regardless of what you’re allergic to, but knowing your triggers can help you figure out the exact treatment combination that’s most effective for you. Need help? Get started with an allergist-picked treatment Pack made just for you.

Being more proactive: Medications like antihistamines are most beneficial when they’re taken about a month before your typical allergy season. In order to do that, you need to know what your own “typical allergy season” is—which starts with pinpointing your triggers.

Avoiding certain environments: Finally, the best way to stave off your allergy symptoms is to avoid your allergens entirely. While that’s not always possible (you’re probably not going to lock yourself indoors for an entire season), knowing what you’re allergic to helps you be smart and strategic about how much exposure to your allergens you have.

To put it simply, once you know what you’re allergic to, you can move forward with what matters to you most: getting some much-needed relief for your allergy symptoms.

ARTICLE REVIEWED BYAmina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPHPicnic Medical Director
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