Honey allergy: Symptoms, causes, and treatment

Honey allergy: Symptoms, causes, and treatment

Allergies occur when the body initiates an immune response to something that is harmless. In rare cases, people can have an allergy to honey. This food can cause allergic reactions that range from mild to potentially life threatening.

Honey is a sweet liquid that bees produce using nectar from flowers. Many people regularly consume it because they like its flavor or are interested in the potential health benefits. Some evidence suggests that honey may possess many medicinal properties. However, it may also pose some risks.

Some people are allergic to honey, although this is very rare. About 32 million people in the United States live with a food allergy, meaning that they are allergic to certain foods. In these individuals, the immune system reacts to a foreign substance, known as an allergen, that is present in the food.

In this article, we look at honey allergies in more detail, including their symptoms, causes, treatment, and management.

Honey is a natural food substance that bees produce from the nectar they collect, process, and store. Honey is a complex blend of many organic and inorganic compounds, which provide it with its purported medicinal benefits. It primarily consists of sugars, but it also contains pollen and proteins.

Honey allergy is rare, with an estimated incidence of less than 0.001% in the general population. The main allergens in the honey that trigger an allergic reaction are pollen and glandular proteins that the bees produce.

Specifically, pollen from the plant family Compositae, which includes sunflower, ragweed, and sagebrush, is associated with honey allergy. Health experts may refer to pollen allergies as seasonal allergic rhinitis or hay fever.

Learn more about pollen allergy.

A person’s allergic response to honey can vary from mild to severe. Mild symptoms will likely include:

Rarely, honey allergy may cause a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. It is essential to recognize its symptoms to prevent it from escalating to a life threatening situation. Anaphylaxis symptoms occur suddenly, usually within 5–30 minutes of encountering the allergen, and they can progress quickly.

Health experts may refer to these symptoms as the ABC symptoms, as they affect the airways, breathing, and circulation. The initial symptoms are typically the same as those above, but a person may then experience:

  • swollen tongue
  • breathing difficulties
  • tight chest
  • trouble speaking
  • fainting
  • collapsing

It is essential to contact a doctor immediately or go to the emergency room as soon as any of these symptoms occur. As with other allergies, not receiving treatment early enough can cause serious complications.

The majority of commercial honey products available in retail stores are safe. They undergo filtration and pasteurization, which removes most of the pollen and proteins to which people may react.

Wild honey and raw honey products labeled as artisanal, unheated, unfiltered, or unpasteurized are unprocessed. This means that they may still contain a high amount of pollens and fine bee components that may trigger an allergic reaction. Some may also contain spores, molds, and bacteria.

A person allergic to pollen or bee stings is more likely to be at risk of a honey allergy. Those with severe seasonal allergies also have an increased risk.

Bees are avid pollinators. The honey they produce may also contain pollen from other plants and trees, to which a person may be allergic. These plants can include:

  • rhododendron
  • mountain laurel
  • yellow jessamine

Other possible risks of consuming honey may include:

Risk of infant botulism

Parents and caregivers should not offer honey to babies younger than 12 months old. Honey, especially raw honey, may contain spore-forming bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. The ingestion of the spores can result in infant botulism.

Infant botulism, or intestinal botulism, affects children younger than a year old because their immune and digestive systems are still immature. Although it is rare, it may lead to fatal complications. The symptoms include:

  • difficulty feeding
  • muscle weakness, causing a floppy head, neck, and limbs
  • a weak cry

Honey may contain natural toxins

Honey bees may forage from a wide variety of plants, including poisonous plants. If the density of poisonous flowering plants is high during a particular period, the honey that the bees produce may accumulate a significant number of natural toxins, such as grayanotoxins. This can lead to mad honey poisoning.

This condition rarely occurs in connection with commercial honey, as the pooling of massive quantities of honey dilutes the toxic substance. Mad honey poisoning is more likely to result from raw or wild honey that honey hunters source or small-scale beekeepers produce. This is because these products do not undergo any processing to dilute the toxins.

There is no single test to confirm food allergies. A doctor or allergist will consider different factors before confirming a diagnosis. They will ask for a detailed history of the person’s symptoms, including the foods they had eaten shortly before the symptoms began. They will also ask about the person’s family history and perform a physical examination to rule out other conditions that may be causing the symptoms.

Tests to help identify reactions to specific allergens may include:

Skin prick test

A skin prick test, also known as a scratch or puncture test, is a simple and quick test that looks at a person’s immediate allergic reactions to multiple substances at once. A healthcare professional pricks the skin with a needle or sharp piece of plastic to allow a tiny amount of the allergen to enter just beneath the skin’s surface. A person who is allergic to a particular substance will develop a raised bump.

Blood test

In a serum-specific IgE test, such as the RAST test, a doctor will get a person’s blood sample and send it to the lab. The technicians will check for the specific antibodies in the blood that should be present if there is an allergic reaction.

Elimination diet

A doctor may ask a person to eliminate suspected foods from their diet for 1–2 weeks and add them back one at a time. This helps identify which food is causing the symptoms. However, doctors do not recommend this procedure for a person who has had a severe reaction to a food in the past.

Oral food challenge

A person will receive small but increasing amounts of food that a healthcare professional suspects may be causing their symptoms.

The most effective strategy to avoid an allergic reaction to honey is to avoid it by reading product labels and asking about the ingredients. However, as many food products contain honey, it may not be possible to avoid it completely.

A person may take over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines to manage minor allergic reactions. They will need to take these drugs after exposure to an allergen to relieve symptoms such as hives and itching. However, these drugs will not work for severe allergic reactions.

For severe allergic reactions, a person should go to the emergency room for a shot of epinephrine. Doctors may ask individuals prone to having severe allergic reactions to bring an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen) with them. This delivers a single dose of the drug that a person needs to administer by injecting it into their thigh.

A honey allergy describes a rare type of food allergy. It is often the honey’s pollen or bee protein content that triggers an allergic reaction in certain individuals. People with pollen allergies, bee sting allergies, or seasonal allergies are more likely to experience honey allergies. Commercial honey is typically safe to consume, but raw honey, which has not undergone filtration, may contain these products.

A person who suspects a honey allergy should discuss their symptoms with a doctor. The best treatment for a honey allergy is to avoid honey. However, a doctor can prescribe medications to help manage the symptoms and prevent further complications.

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