Is it a Food Allergy or Really Just a Pollen Allergy?

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Divine retribution! God must have been punishing me for stealing.

At least, that’s how I felt when, for the umpteenth time, I had snuck over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, and picked a few of his golden-ripe pears off of his tree. I brought them home and sat outside in my yard, and started to eat them.

Before long, my mouth and lips began to itch and burn! I stopped eating the fruit, but too late: before long I was having stomach pain and nausea, and that itching just wouldn’t go away. I got over it, but you can bet that was the last time I ever snuck over that fence.

A few months later, something similar happened. But this time, I was at my brother’s wedding reception, and I wasn’t doing anything wrong: I had taken a nice red apple from the table and started eating it. I experienced those same symptoms again. Then came Thanksgiving, and yum! how I loved to crack and eat the nuts that were set out in large bowls in all the houses… but you can guess what happened when I started to eat them, I suppose?

Within about a year or so, I found that I could not eat apples, pears, nuts, coconut, lettuce, carrots, or just about any kind of raw fruits or veggies. You can imagine how hard that was to explain to my Mom and Dad, who naturally thought this was just a cleverer-than-average excuse not to eat healthy foods. I suppose it was convenient on occasion, but more often than not, this problem was preventing me from eating foods that I actually enjoyed.

I got in the habit of telling people, “I’m sorry I can’t eat that, I’m allergic.” This didn’t cause any problems other than those suspicions of my parents. When I was in high school, I remember the biology teacher doubting my claims of being allergic. She told me plainly that this wasn’t like any food allergies she had ever heard of, and she was sure I was just being a picky eater.

This condition continued to mystify me for several years, and it continued to cause me problems – sometime in surprising ways. For example, I was put on potato-peeling duty in the Army, and I got a terrible rash (hives) from the potato juice splashing on my skin, as well as my first-ever asthma attack from breathing in the fumes!

So what was really going on here? It turns out that my high school teacher was pretty much correct. My problem was indeed caused by allergies – but NOT by food allergies. Food allergies are potentially very serious, even deadly reactions to foods. Most allergy experts say that the foods that people are most commonly allergic to are milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts, and seafood. People with food allergies must avoid the food they are allergic to altogether. For some foods, this means not even touching them or being around people who are eating them. Luckily, true food allergies affect a fairly minor percentage of people: Experts estimate that only 2 percent of adults are truly allergic to certain foods. For those few people, food allergies can extremely dangerous: tiny amounts of peanut, for example, have been known to cause life-threatening reactions and even death in very allergic individuals. I remember seeing something on TV about a high school kid that almost died after kissing a girl who had eaten peanuts.

My problem, it turns out, is something called “Oral Allergy Syndrome.” It is now known that people who suffer pollen-induced seasonal rhinitis, often known as “hayfever,” can suffer cross-reactions to fruits, vegetables, and even certain chemicals and synthetic materials. When I take a bite of a raw apple, somehow my immune system thinks I am trying to swallow birch pollen! Not to get too technical here, but the shape of the protein molecules in that apple are interpreted by my body as being similar enough to the pollen to provoke a weak allergic reaction. I say “weak” meaning in comparison with what happens to people with true food allergies. Certainly when I am suffering from eating an apple slice it doesn’t seem weak or minor to me! I guess I should mention that there have been very rare reported cases of this type of allergic problem causing dangerous reactions like anaphylactic shock, but again that is very rare.

If you already know you have seasonal allergies, and you experience symptoms like those I have been describing, then it is very likely your symptoms are indeed being caused by Oral Allergy Syndrome (“OAS.”) You may have never bothered before to find out exactly which pollens cause your allergy symptoms, but if you have OAS it may finally be worthwhile to do so. There are well-documented lists of which foods and other substances correlate to which pollen allergies, so if you know exactly what pollens you are allergic to, you can predict foods and other materials that are likely to cause you problems. Go to your doctor and ask for an allergy skin test, which is the simplest way to test for common pollen allergies.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for OAS. You may have heard about desensitizing treatments for allergies, and there is some evidence that this helps, but it is a long and complicated and uncomfortable process for most people who try it. Antihistamines can help with the symptoms, the same as they help with your other symptoms. Also, many people find they can eat their favorite foods just slightly cooked (enough to break down the offending proteins,) or even just slightly more or less ripened than usual. In general, however, you will simply need to identify the foods that cross-react with your pollen allergies, and avoid them.

Sam Hodgeman runs a new website reviewing allergy information and products. For more free information and reviews, see

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