Doctors have today warned of a little-known food allergy that often gets mistaken with hayfever.
One in 50 Brits are thought to suffer from pollen food syndrome — a reaction that’s triggered by eating raw fruit or vegetables.
It is usually harmless, causing a runny nose, sneezing and itchy eyes.
But the allergy can prove more serious, according to Dr Sabah Salman.
The GP, who works in south London, said: ‘More extreme symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, trouble swallowing, and breathing difficulties can occur.
Food particles in the air can trigger sneezing, a runny nose and eye irritation, and peeling fruit and vegetables may cause skin irritation. Although rare, more extreme symptoms like nausea, vomiting, trouble swallowing, and breathing difficulties can occur
‘Of course, in this case you should always seek urgent medical treatment.’
Food pollen syndrome — a hypersensitivity that can also be triggered by eating nuts — commonly affects hayfever sufferers.
Dr Salman, who works with Lloyds pharmacy, added: ‘Many plant based foods have a protein structure very similar in shape to the pollen in the sorts of trees, grasses and weeds that cause hay fever.
‘Your immune system does not always recognise the difference between the pollen you breathe in from things like trees, and the pollen structure in foods you eat.’
‘Essentially, pollen food syndrome results when the immune system recognises the food protein you eat as an allergen and creates an allergic reaction.’
She added that this results in similar symptoms to hayfever, whose season is now in full swing.
Raw apples, peaches, kiwi, almonds and hazelnuts are common triggers.
Symptoms — which can also include mild swelling of the lips, tongue, inside of the mouth, ears and throat — typically occur within 10 minutes of eating the offending food.
Dr Salman said: ‘Some people notice symptoms just from food preparation.
‘For example, food particles in the air can trigger sneezing, a runny nose and eye irritation, and peeling fruit and vegetables may cause skin irritation.’
Mild symptoms tend to settle within an hour without treatment and drinking water.
The allergic reaction can be caused by plant-based foods such as fruits and cereals. These foods have a protein structure that is very similar to the pollen in the sorts of trees, grasses and weeds that cause hay fever
Dr Salman added: ‘If you have taken an antihistamine but your symptoms are not improving, you should seek medical advice.
‘If you have a food allergic reaction which affects your breathing or circulation, for example, causing faintness, do not rely on antihistamines or an asthma inhaler. Instead, speak to a medical provider urgently.’
Many food pollen syndrome sufferers can tolerate reactive foods if they are cooked or from a tin, even if they can’t eat the foods raw without triggering symptoms.
This is because they will have been ‘denatured’, Dr Salman said.
Dr Salman said: ‘This means a soup containing allergic food may not cause symptoms but a stir-fried vegetable – which has been very gently cooked – may be an issue.
‘Some people also find that they can tolerate certain varieties of the same food. For example, one variety of apple may cause reactions, whereas another may not.’
Despite Dr Salman’s warning, very few Brits have even heard of the allergy.
A survey conducted by Lloyds Pharmacy of 500 Brits found 78 per cent had never heard of food pollen syndrome.
Common pollen food syndrome trigger foods
Apples, apricots, cherries, dates, kiwis, melons, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelons.
Celery, bean sprouts, carrots, green peppers, mange tout, onions, potatoes, soya, swiss chard, parsnips, peas, wheat.
Seeds and spices
Aniseed, basil, celery salt, coriander, fennel, mustard, oregano, sunflower seeds, parsley, paprika, pepper, thyme.
Almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts.
Source: Lloyds Pharmacy