January 21, 2020
All About Airborne Food Allergens
As if being strict about what to eat at parties, school, restaurants, and on vacation isn’t enough for food allergy families to manage, some also have to be mindful of what’s lurking in the air.
Fortunately, reactions to airborne food allergens are rare and typically mild when they do occur. Most of the time, symptoms include congestion, a runny nose, hives, coughing, and wheezing. People with asthma are more likely to experience respiratory issues due to airborne food allergies.
While extremely rare, anaphylactic reactions to airborne allergens are not unheard of, such as when an 11-year-old boy died last year after his asthma was triggered by cod cooking at his grandmother’s house. Most often, when people experience a reaction to their food allergens in the air, it happens when that food is being cooked, and proteins rise up and are inhaled.
Fish and shellfish are known to release proteins when heated, so people who are diagnosed with either of these allergies may experience symptoms when fish or shellfish are being steamed, boiled, or fried. The more severe the allergy, the greater the risk of a reaction. Also, standing close to the cooking food and being in a smaller room would increase the risk compared to being farther away and in a large, well-ventilated space. In addition to seafood, cooking eggs and milk can also release proteins associated with an allergic reaction. Even someone with a wheat allergy might experience a reaction if they stand over or stir boiling pasta.
Fine food particles in the air can also cause problematic respiratory symptoms. Soy flour, wheat flour, powdered egg, and powdered milk can readily float through the air and be inhaled. Bakery employees who may already be sensitive to one or more of the flours used in their line of work sometimes develop allergic symptoms and then what’s called “baker’s asthma” after prolonged, intense exposure.
Peanuts are certainly the most high-profile of all the food allergens, and patients often worry about airborne peanut exposure causing a reaction. Researchers have not proven that peanuts aerosolize in the same way fish and shellfish do. Having an open jar of peanut butter in the same room as a person with a peanut allergy is not likely to result in any symptoms. However, considering the potential for serious peanut reactions, staying vigilant around peanuts, especially on surfaces and in other foods, is certainly recommended. What could seem like a reaction to peanuts in the air may actually be traces of peanuts on the counter or a plate.
It’s important to remember that serious reactions to airborne allergens are rare. The likelihood of experiencing a reaction does increase in people who have asthma and are highly allergic to a food that can aerosolize. Better to be safe than sorry, so steer clear of the kitchen when you’re concerned about a potential reaction. Let someone else do the work so you can breathe easy. And keep an up-to-date epinephrine auto-injector at the ready just in case.