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June 20, 2001
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Faulty Bee Tests Make For Stinging Surprises

Summer has arrived and so have the bees. So what’s the latest buzz on the matter? According to a recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, even the usually reliable bee allergy tests may leave some people fear-free when, in fact, they are allergic to the nectar-gathering insects.

In a study of 307 people who previously had allergic reactions to bees, doctors discovered 99 who skin-tested "negative" for the allergy --- their skin did not become ruddy or swollen when exposed to bee venom. Fifty-six of these, however, tested positive in a RAST (radioallergosorbent) test that exposes a sample of the patient's blood to concentrated allergens. And of the 51 with negative skin tests who agreed to undergo a sting challenge, 11 suffered an allergic reaction.

Although skin tests are more than 90 percent accurate, they are not 100 percent accurate. Skin and RAST tests need to be repeated when negative, and doctors should forewarn patients who have had prior reactions that both tests might be faulty, said David Golden, M.D, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. "We need better tests that provide more accurate diagnoses but until we get them, retesting is a must," he continued.

Over 2 million Americans are allergic to stinging insects. Reactions can range from mild to life-threatening, and can involve hives, itchiness, swelling, difficulty breathing, dizziness, a sharp drop in blood pressure, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, unconsciousness and cardiac arrest. People who have had such a reaction should tell their doctor and see an allergy specialist for testing; an immunization for insect stings (venom immunotherapy) is 98 percent successful in preventing allergic reactions.

-- JHMI --
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