Allergy to Food Odors and Smells

Allergies to Inhaled Particles from Foods

Peanut butter sandwich with a brown paper bag and bunch of grapes
Allergic reactions from the smell or odors of food. Tetra Images - Jamie Grill/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Is it Possible to Be Allergic to Odors or Smells Emitted from Foods?

Do some people have allergies so bad that they can react to the smell of a food alone? To answer this question honestly we need to discuss a few different scenarios which may result in someone wondering if they are allergic to food smells.

  • Can someone be allergic to tiny particles of food in the air enough to cause an allergic reaction?
  • Can smell alone (without significant particle inhalation) result in an allergy?
  • Can you have an allergic reaction to the steam or vapor from a food but still eat the food without problems?
  • Is the apparent reaction to to the smell of a food due to a cross reaction between food antigens and inhaled antigens? (Such as the cross reaction some people have between inhaled birch pollen and ingested raw apples.)

Allergies to Food Odors or Smells Due to Inhaled Food Particles

While it is not common, and usually only found in the most sensitive (from an allergy standpoint) of individuals, an allergic reaction to small particles of food in the air is possible. If you've ever been on a plane and heard an announcement not to open any packages of peanuts, you may have wondered how this occurs.

In this case, and most apparent allergies to food odors the allergy is not to the odor itself, but instead to the small particles of the suspected food (food vapors) that cause the smell or odor.

In fact, this is an increasingly recognized problem in children.

The most commonly reported of these types of reactions have occurred as a result of seafood-allergic people inhaling odors from cooking fish and shellfish. Less common foods, that when cooked release odors that have caused allergic reactions include potatoes, eggs, milk and hot dogs.

In addition, reports of allergic reactions to packages of peanuts being opened on airplanes has been reported–which has led to the debate on the safety of peanuts being served on airplanes.

Fortunately, allergic reactions from inhaling food odors are extremely uncommon. People with food allergies have enough to worry about—especially hidden ingredients in foods to which they are allergic. Most don’t—and shouldn’t—worry about food allergens floating in the air that could cause them to have an allergic reaction. Still, it’s probably best for the shellfish-allergic person to not visit Red Lobster, rather than to go that restaurant and simply order the chicken.

Allergy to Inhaled Food but No Food Allergy

Sometimes the food can be eaten without problems, but causes problems when inhaled. (This is referred to as hypersensitivity to foods by inhalation.) Some people have reactions to airborne food particles even though they can tolerate eating a food. This has occurred with peanuts, cow's milk, fish, shellfish, seeds, soybeans, cereal grains, legumes, and hen's egg.

In fact, there have been several reports of steam allergy to legumes and it is thought that this is responsible for some of the increases in allergic disease we have been seeing.

Symptoms of an airborne allergy to food particles often include runny, watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, and asthma, but anaphylactic reactions have occurred.

Another setting in which this has become problematic is in an occupational setting. Workers who handle food products, food additives, or contaminants have an increased risk of developing occupational asthma. Most exposures occur through inhalation of dust, steam, vapors and airborne proteins that are produced in the process of cutting, cleaning, boiling, or drying foods.

Reaction to Food Odors Alone (Without Particle Inhalation)

Some people may have an immediate reaction when they smell a particular food that is not due to inhalation of food particles, but rather the way the brain processes a particular smell. In this case, the reaction would not be considered a true allergy.

If someone has an allergy—especially a severe food allergy—and smells that food being cooked, her brain may immediately register a warning. The subsequent anxiety could, in turn, manifest itself in physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate and more. If this occurs the symptoms are real. Anxiety can cause the release of stress hormones and adrenaline in a "fight or flight response." Sometimes these reactions can be very intense, but should not be mistaken for an allergic reaction.

Cross Reactions Between Food Allergens and Inhaled Allergens

A different scenario exists in which allergies to inhaled antigens (such as birch pollen) cross react with antigens in food (such as apple proteins.) This particular reaction, birch-apple, is an example of an oral allergy syndrome.

Oral allergy syndrome been noted between several airborne allergens and food allergies. Some of these include ragweed and watermelon, grasses and potato, and mugwort and carrots.

Bottom Line on Inhaled Food Allergies

While not common, it is certainly possible to be allergic to food odors and smells via minute particles that are inhaled. Sometimes this occurs in people with food allergies to the food (often severe) but it's also possible to have an airborne allergy to a food while being able to tolerate eating the food. Cross reactions between airborne allergens are not uncommon, and may lend confusion in some cases.

It's important to note that in addition to inhalation, allergic reactions may occur in response to skin or mucus membrane contact with even a small amount of an allergen to which someone is exquisitely sensitive.

Unfortunately allergic disease is increasing. If you suffer from any allergies such as these, make sure to see an allergist. It is important to know what your options are for either avoidance and/or treatment of your symptoms, and even more important to know whether or not you should have an Epi-Pen available in case of an anaphylactic reaction.

Sources:

Bahna, S. Unusual Presentations of Food Allergy. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. 2001. 86(4):414-20.

Cartier, A. The Role of Inhalant Food Allergens in Occupational Asthma. Current Allergy and Asthma Reports. 2010. 10(5):349-56.

Leonardi, S., Pecoraro, R., Filippelli, M. et al. Allergic Reactions to Foods by Inhalation in Children. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings. 2014. 35(4):288-94.

Werfel, T., Asero, R., Ballmer-Weber, B. et al. Position Paper of the EAACI: Food Allergy due to Immunological Cross-Reactions with Common Inhalant Allergens. Allergy. 2015. 70(9):1079-90.

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