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Should I Be Worried About Airborne Food Allergens?

November 29, 2022
by Regan Pyle, DO

What Are Airborne Food Allergens?

While most food allergy reactions are from ingesting food, breathing in particles of food protein in the air can also cause allergic symptoms. Just like you breathe in pollen and animal dander which can cause allergic symptoms; itchy watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath, breathing in particles of food protein in the air can cause similar symptoms. Fortunately, airborne food allergy symptoms are usually mild and rarely result in anaphylaxis. 

What Causes Airborne Food Allergens? 

To trigger a reaction to food in the air, the food protein has to be disturbed in order to get aerosolized. Simply being around food sitting out undisturbed (e.g., a peanut butter sandwich, a glass of milk, or a boiled egg on a plate) will NOT cause a reaction.

Here are some examples of methods that can aerosolize food particles: 

  • Boiling, steaming, or frying fish/shellfish
  • Grinding, mixing, and sifting powdered foods such as wheat or soy flour, powdered egg or powdered milk
  • Pulverizing or grinding peanuts
Pretty African American woman touching her throat in pain
Note: Being in proximity to food you are allergic to is extremely unlikely to result in anaphylaxis. To have an allergic reaction to a food, it must be ingested or aerosolized.

What are symptoms of Airborne Food Allergens?

Similar to symptoms people can have during their allergy season from pollen or around pets, which are generally mild and are unlikely to cause anaphylaxis:

  • Itchy watery eyes
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing/Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath

Which Allergens are Most Likely to Become Airborne?

  • Fish or shellfish if being boiled, steamed, or cooked on the stove 
  • Wheat and soy flour, powdered eggs and powdered milk when baking
  • Peanuts during grinding or pulverization process (fortunately research does not indicate that proteins in peanuts aerosolized in the same way as fish or shellfish)
Preschooler girl eating snacks from lunch box while traveling by plane

Flying with a Peanut Allergy

According to AAAAI ask the expert, “flying with a peanut allergy and being exposed to potential sources of peanut in the cabin is not likely to represent an increased risk to the peanut allergic flier. There is no evidence to support peanut vapor as a cause of reactions or that peanut dust itself circulates and causes reactions.

There is evidence that common surfaces on an airplane may have residual peanut contamination, but there is also evidence that this can be readily cleaned with commercial agents that passengers can bring aboard themselves, and that doing such cleaning has been noted to reduce the risk of reporting an in-flight reaction.”

How Can I Protect Myself from Airborne Food Allergens?

Although exposure to airborne food allergens does not typically result in anaphylaxis, exposure can trigger symptoms such as itchy eyes, a runny, cough, congestion or difficulty breathing. And the more severe the allergy, the greater risk there is of a reaction. So how can you protect yourself?

  • Risk is rare. Even though the risk of anaphylaxis is rare, carry an epinephrine auto-injector in case of anaphylaxis from accidental exposure
  • Proximity is key. Depending on your food allergy, if there is cooking or baking of that particular food, it is safest to avoid close proximity with that food item to avoid aerosolized protein

Allergy and immunology specialist Regan Pyle, DO
Medically Reviewed By: Regan Pyle, DO
Reviewed on: Nov. 28, 2022

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