Ever get an itchy sensation in your mouth when you're eating certain foods? Maybe you're munching on an apple or biting into a slice of cantaloupe and you feel an odd, tingly sensation. You might think your imagination is playing tricks on you. The more likely scenario: You have oral allergy syndrome, a condition that affects some people with seasonal allergies.
"Oral allergy syndrome is a type of food allergy caused by uncooked fruits and vegetables," explains Gillian Bassirpour, M.D., an allergy specialist at Henry Ford Health. "It's actually the most common food allergy among adults."
Oral Allergy Basics
Unlike standard food allergies, which produce systemic symptoms, oral allergy syndrome usually doesn't produce hives or itchy, watery eyes. Instead, an oral allergy experience is a tingling sensation in the mouths and on lips in the moments during and after eating the offending food.
"You'll feel an odd tingling in your mouth. Sometimes people feel a fullness or swelling in the back of the throat or on their tongue shortly after eating," Dr. Bassirpour says. "People who have oral allergy syndrome may also suffer from abdominal discomfort and nausea, but those symptoms are rare."
While both children and adults can suffer from oral allergy syndrome, it's most common among adults who suffer from seasonal allergies and hay fever. And like hay fever, oral allergy syndrome is impacted by season.
"You have to have seasonal allergies to get oral allergy syndrome, but not everyone who has seasonal allergies has oral allergies," Dr. Bassirpour says. So, if you have hay fever, and you're impacted by pollens like ragweed, birch and grass, you may also experience food pollen (also known as oral allergy) symptoms from the beginning of spring through mid-September.
Tips For Oral Allergy Syndrome
The reason oral allergy symptoms happen is because proteins in uncooked fruits and vegetables mimic the pollen protein found in common allergens like birch, ragweed and grasses. Your body reacts to the fruit protein as if it's the plant pollen.
Oral allergy triggers typically stem from the following offenders:
- Birch pollen: Kiwi, carrots, celery, almonds and hazelnuts, and pitted fruits, such as apples, peaches, plums and pears.
- Grass pollen: Celery, melons, oranges, peaches and tomatoes.
- Ragweed pollen: Melons (like cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon), banana, cucumber, zucchini and sunflower seeds.
"You can only get oral allergy syndrome if you're allergic to pollen," Dr. Bassirpour says. "Fortunately, the reaction is usually short-lived because your stomach acid breaks down the offending protein after it's swallowed." More good news: There are plenty of things you can do to tamp down your body's unnecessary reaction:
- Eat foods out of season: Since oral allergy symptoms usually happen in the cross-reacting pollen season, affected individuals may not have a problem when they eat the same foods imported out of season.
- Remove the peel: The peel is where most of the allergens are. So, if you have an oral allergy reaction to apples, you can remove the peel. You might also discover that some apple varieties trigger more of a reaction than others. "It's something people tend to figure out through trial and error," Dr. Bassirpour says.
- Cook the food: Oral allergy symptoms only occur with fresh, uncooked versions of fruits and vegetables. The reason: Heating and cooking the foods denatures the offending proteins.
- Steer clear of the offending foods: If you discover that certain cross-reacting foods make your mouth itch or tingle, don't eat them. Most important, don't take an antihistamine so you can tolerate the offending food. Choose instead to eat baked or cooked forms of the food.
Getting Help For Oral Allergy Syndrome
While oral allergy syndrome usually isn't cause for concern, it's a good idea to talk to your primary care provider about any symptoms you may be experiencing.
"If the reactions aren't isolated to your mouth — if you have hives, vomiting or difficulty breathing — you may be suffering from a true allergy," Dr. Bassirpour says. "In those cases, it's important to see an allergist. If you think you're experiencing symptoms of an oral allergy, but you haven't been diagnosed with seasonal allergies, you should see a specialist as well."
Suffering from only mild symptoms? There’s no harm in continuing to eat the food, particularly if you decide to cook or microwave it first. However, if you're having a reaction to nuts, such as almonds or hazelnuts, it makes sense to see an allergist to rule out a more serious food allergy.
Dr. Gillian Bassirpour is a allergist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center - Fairlane in Dearborn and Henry Ford Medical Center - Sterling Heights.