For those with spice allergies, it’s a drab diet or worse

A presentation at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting in Anaheim focused on the dangers posed by spice allergies. Above, sacks of spices at the Al Dhalam Souk in Muscat, Oman.
(Mark Kolbe / Getty Images)

If you thought peanut allergies were bad, meet what may be a far worse affliction: Approximately 2% to 3% of the population suffers from severe allergies to spices, according to a presentation Friday at the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) Annual Scientific Meeting in Anaheim by its past president, Dr. Sami Bahna.

Spices are everywhere. So while it may be possible to avoid peanuts and other common allergens when dining at restaurants, the ubiquity of spices makes eating out extremely difficult, and can also restrict the use of store-bought and processed foods, as spices are not always listed on packaging.

According to Bahna, women are more likely than men to suffer from spice allergies because many cosmetic products, including makeup and body oils, contain spices that can set off reactions on the skin.

And on the food front, spice mixes make matters worse because people allergic to one or a few spices often don’t know what they’re dealing with. A curry powder, for example, can contain any combination of dozens of spices.


So what does a spice allergy look like? We’re all familiar with the sneezing black pepper can induce, but Bahna says spice allergies can be far worse than that, sometimes leading to severe asthma attacks and anaphylaxis — a serious allergic reaction that can restrict breathing and often requires an epinephrine injection before it subsides.

For those that suspect a spice allergy, Bahna recommends contacting an allergist, who can create a management plan. But due to the complexity of the condition and the lack of a definitive test, he says, such a plan often boils down to one simple maxim: Stay away from spices.

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