In some allergy sufferers, the immune system confuses pollen proteins with certain food proteins, making allergy symptoms worse or causing oral-allergy syndrome.
Another Seattle summer’s on its way, with its nearly endless daylight and minimal rainfall (psst … keep that secret to yourselves). But for those who suffer from seasonal allergies, it can be hard to enjoy our most glorious season. If you sneeze and sniffle all summer (or all spring), did you know that avoiding a few specific foods during allergy season may prevent or reduce allergy symptoms?
When you have allergies, your immune system overreacts to seemingly harmless triggers, such as pollen, and releases a chemical called histamine. Histamine is meant to protect you, but it also results in allergy symptoms. The pollens typically responsible for “hay fever” contain similar proteins to those found in certain raw fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.
In some allergy sufferers, the immune system confuses the pollen proteins with the food proteins. Eating those foods can trigger a “cross-reaction,” making allergy symptoms worse, but more often they cause oral-allergy syndrome, also known as pollen-food syndrome: itchy mouth, scratchy throat, swelling of the lips, mouth and throat.
Seattle’s pollen season runs from February to September. If you feel worse in spring, you’re likely more sensitive to tree pollens. If your symptoms hit in summer, they are probably triggered by grasses or weeds.
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May tends to be the month when these allergies coincide. People with oral-allergy syndrome typically have an allergy to birch, ragweed or grass pollens, and symptoms typically appear in older children, teens and young adults who have been eating the fruits or vegetables in question for years without any problems. Oral-allergy syndrome usually doesn’t affect young children.
If you are allergic to birch pollen, avoid apples, pears, almonds, hazelnuts, carrots, celery, kiwi and the pitted (or stone) fruits: cherries, peaches and plums. Some people find that only certain apple varieties bother them.
If you are allergic to grass pollen, avoid celery, melons, oranges, peaches and tomatoes. If you are allergic to ragweed pollen, avoid bananas, cucumbers, zucchinis, melons and sunflower seeds.
Allergy sufferers may also feel better by avoiding spicy food, because eating chili peppers or powder can trigger the release of histamine, the chemical that causes nasal swelling and stuffiness.
Tortured by the thought of not eating apples in the fall or cherries in the summer? The good news is that people affected by oral-allergy syndrome can usually eat the same fruits or vegetables when they are cooked. The heat of cooking alters the proteins in fruits and vegetables so that the immune system no longer recognizes them as being similar to pollen proteins — it’s the raw version of fruits and vegetables that can cause problems.
Even though people with oral-allergy syndrome typically have an allergy to birch, ragweed or grass pollens, they may not have strong seasonal allergy symptoms, making it puzzling when something as routine as eating an apple makes their mouth itch.
Oral-allergy syndrome is different from other food-related allergies in that symptoms are restricted to the mouth area and go away quickly when the offending food is gone. If, after eating a food, you experience symptoms in areas other than the mouth, or the symptoms persist, it’s important to talk to your health-care provider or allergist. You may be experiencing a different type of food allergy.
While oral-allergy syndrome is considered harmless and doesn’t need treatment, other food allergies can potentially be fatal if they lead to anaphylaxis.