Asbury Park Press recently interviewed allergist Dr. Ellen Sher, who lives in Ocean Township, NJ, works as a partner in Atlantic Allergy Asthma and Immunology Associates, and attended Georgetown University for undergraduate and medical studies.
The interview gives us a look at what it's like to be allergist.
‘An allergist treats allergic diseases, which include nasal allergies, asthma, sinus problems, hives, eczema, drug allergies, insect allergies, food allergies and immune deficiencies.’
How did you get your job?
‘I got interested after I was already in my residency in internal medicine. I knew I wanted to specialize in some field, because I have the type of personality that needs to know everything about what I do, so being a generalist wasn't going to do. I sort of fell into allergy because I come from a very allergic family. My grandfather had very severe asthma when I was growing up. I have nasal allergies myself.
‘I had kind of forgotten about allergies (as a specialty) when I was in my residency because it's an outpatient specialty, so you don't see a lot of allergists in the hospital setting. But one day it hit me, and I thought it would be a perfect fit for me and it was an area where I could really help people.’
‘According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the salary ranges from $100,250 to $206,000.’
What is a typical day like?
‘We're primarily an outpatient practice, so I cram a lot of patients into a very busy day. I examine patients and see how they're feeling. I also do a little bit of clinical research for drug studies as well.
‘The examination mostly concentrates on the upper and lower respiratory system. We're looking at the nose, the mouth, the ears, the eyes. We feel the neck for lymph nodes and we listen to the heart and lungs. After I'm done doing my assessment, especially with a new patient, we do allergy skin tests to find out what the patient is allergic to, and we'll do breathing tests if there's a suggestion the patient has asthma or similar symptoms.
‘Our testing is usually pretty accurate and can pinpoint the problem. But there can be some frustrations. Sometimes people can have all the symptoms of an allergy, but the tests will come back negative. They may have nonallergic rhinitis, which is nasal congestion with no allergic cause.
‘There are basically three things an allergist can recommend for treatment. The first is avoidance, so if there is something in the environment, you try to avoid exposure to it. Beyond that, we will treat with medications, and if medications are not effective, then we recommend putting them on allergy shots. They're very effective, but they're a bit time-consuming.
‘Allergies are on the rise worldwide. They are a disease of industrialization. They're a dysfunction of your immune system. Your body's immune system goes into overdrive and starts to make antibodies against things it doesn't need to make antibodies against. Allergies didn't exist before the Industrial Revolution.
‘There are many reasons for this. We're immunizing our children against just about every bad disease out there, which is good. But what happens is their cells become more allergic and produce more antibodies. Another thing is our ultra-clean society. Researchers believe because we're very obsessed with cleanliness, our immune systems develop differently. Kids who grow up on farms tend to be less allergic than kids who grow up in suburban America.
‘Our homes are more tightly sealed and tend to be warmer than older homes, and we've got wall-to-wall carpeting and plush pillows and stuffed animals, all of which are conducive to dust mite and mold growth.’
What do you like about your job?
‘Most of the diseases that we see are treatable and controllable. Many are quality-of-life diseases, and a lot of doctors don't deal with them. Often the patients have learned to live with a stuffy nose or a cough and don't know they can do anything about it. It's nice to be able to give people a better quality of life. It's very gratifying.’
What do you dislike about your job?
‘I don't like when I get so busy that I can't get to patients who need to be seen. It's frustrating, because everybody wants to be seen, and there's only so many hours in the day.’
Any suggestions for people considering becoming an allergist?
‘You have to go through medical school and a residency in pediatrics or internal medicine. Then you specialize in allergies. It takes a lot of years.’