The histamine test is a useful indicator of mast cell activation. The test may be used to help confirm that a person has had an anaphylactic reaction, or it may be used to help diagnose mastocytosis, a rare group of disorders characterized by abnormal proliferation of mast cells.
Anaphylaxis is usually diagnosed clinically, but a histamine test may be used along with a tryptase test to help confirm anaphylaxis as the cause of someone's acute symptoms. This is especially true if the person has recurrent episodes and/or if the diagnosis is uncertain. A blood histamine test must be collected rapidly, as soon as symptoms develop.
Instead of a blood test, a histamine test performed on urine collected over a 24-hour period may be ordered instead to evaluate histamine production over a longer time frame. In some cases, the metabolite N-methylhistamine may be measured in urine instead of histamine.
Histamine testing may sometimes be ordered along with a tryptase test to help diagnose mastocytosis or mast cell activation disorder. Cutaneous mastocytosis typically only causes skin problems (particularly hives). People with systemic mastocytosis or mast cell activation disorder may experience anaphylaxis and its associated symptoms.
Histamine is not a frequently ordered test. Anaphylaxis is usually diagnosed without testing for histamine or tryptase, and mastocytosis is rare. Histamine and tryptase tests are sometimes ordered when a person has symptoms that suggest anaphylaxis, especially when the diagnosis is not clear and/or the symptoms are recurrent. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
Difficulty breathing, wheezing
Itching, often with visible hives
Light-headedness or dizziness
Low blood pressure
Swelling of the throat, face, tongue, and/or eyes
Many of these symptoms are also seen with other conditions.
Testing may also be ordered when a doctor suspects that a person may have mastocytosis or a mast cell activation disorder. People with these disorders have many of the same symptoms and signs as persons with severe allergies, but without any specific trigger, such as exposure to certain foods (e.g., peanuts) or a bee sting. Persons with systemic mastocytosis may have signs and symptoms such as peptic ulcers, chronicdiarrhea, joint pain, enlarged liver, spleen or lymph nodes, rashes or characteristic red, blistering lesions that may be present singly or by the hundreds.
Acutely elevated histamine and/or tryptase levels in a person with symptoms of anaphylaxis are strong evidence for that diagnosis.
Normal histamine results may indicate that a person's symptoms are due to another cause, or that the sample was not collected at the right time. With anaphylaxis, blood histamine levels rise rapidly and can fall back to normal within about 30-60 minutes. If a sample is drawn too late, results may be normal. If a tryptase test is also performed, its value can be compared to the histamine levels. Tryptase levels rise and fall more slowly than histamine levels, peaking within 1 to 2 hours of symptom development.
If the timing of sample collection was appropriate and neither the blood histamine or tryptase concentration is elevated, it is less likely that a person had anaphylaxis. However, a person can have anaphylaxis or mastocytosis without elevated histamine levels, so the diagnosis cannot be ruled out just because the test is negative.
Increased levels of histamine and/or N-methylhistamine in a 24-hour urine sample indicate an event associated with mast cell activation. Persistently elevated histamine and/or tryptase levels in a person with mastocytosis symptoms make it likely that the person has this condition. The diagnosis must still be confirmed with other testing.
Histamine may be elevated with any condition that activates mast cells, and the release of histamine may be triggered by a wide variety of substances.
An allergic reaction to a food is thought to be the most common cause of anaphylaxis.
In some people, histamine-related symptoms, such as flushing, headache, diarrhea, itching, etc., may develop after eating histamine-rich foods. Histamine can be found in a variety of foods, especially those that are "aged" such as cheese, wine, and sauerkraut. Symptoms may also be caused by ingesting alcohol, or by drugs that either stimulate the release of histamine or block its metabolism.
Rarely, histamine poisoning can occur by eating fish that has spoiled (e.g., tuna, mackerel) and has high quantities of bacteria-produced histamine. Called scombroid fish poisoning, this condition can cause flushing, sweating, vomiting, headache, and diarrhea.
Some gastrointestinal carcinoid tumors produce excess histamine.
This article was last reviewed on September 20, 2012. | This article was last modified on October 29, 2014.
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