Can You Have An Allergic Reaction To Honey?

Honey is a natural sweetener, immune system booster and a remedy that doesn’t seem to have an expiry date. Despite all of its benefits, honey can sometimes cause an allergic reaction.

Honey is mainly composed of sugars and water, but may also contain other components, such as pollen, wax and bee gland secretions. Those components have been referred to as the most probable allergens in the mixture.

Proteins Are the Key Allergens

Honey is made from the plant nectar. Bees collect it and transforming it into honey with the help of their glands producing special enzymes. Research has shown that proteins from these gland secretions, as well as pollen proteins, may be the main allergens in honey.

An allergic reaction appears especially after consuming raw honey or honeycomb that hasn’t gone through a process of pasteurization and filtration. That means it may still contain more traces of bee pollen than regular, commercial honey.

What Happens During an Allergic Reaction?

Having an allergic reaction means that a certain substance is recognized as a threat to your immune system. Therefore, your body starts producing large amounts of antibodies to protect itself from it. The antibodies are in the form of a protein called immunoglobulin E.

This protein affects immune cells and makes them react at the next encounter with the allergen. It usually signals them to produce special chemicals called mediators. These mediators cause inflammation in your body, with the most commonly known one being histamine.

Histamine is usually active during a honey or pollen allergic reaction. It causes a runny nose, sneezing and narrowing of the airways, resulting in heavy breathing.

Allergic Symptoms After Honey Consumption

An allergic reaction can develop within an hour — and sometimes immediately after consuming honey or skin contact with the allergen.

Mild Symptoms

When consumed honey is contaminated with pollen, allergic symptoms may appear. 

  • Running nose and sneezing
  • Swelling
  • Throat and skin itching
  • Rashes and hives

These are mild symptoms and can ease off after a few hours, especially for skin itching. When it comes to throat itching and sneezing, you should pay more attention. During an allergic reaction, your white blood cells will start to release histamine. This will cause leaking blood vessels in your nose and lungs.

A mild allergic reaction can progress to a more severe one, including symptoms such as chest pain and difficulties in breathing. In this case, you will need immediate emergency treatment.

Severe Symptoms

Other symptoms of a severe allergic reaction are:

  • Cramps and nausea
  • Headache
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure, dizziness and irregular heartbeat
  • Anaphylaxis

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should visit your doctor immediately.

Anaphylaxis is the most severe of the above reactions. In many instances, the reaction is life-threatening and requires emergency treatment. Anaphylaxis is treated by administering adrenaline.

Honey Consumption Risk for Children

Honey is completely safe and healthy to consume for children older than 12 months. However, babies younger than a year may get affected by the bacteria — clostridium. It’s sometimes present in the liquid part of honey after honey crystallizes.

Older children and adults are immune to it as their digestive systems have already matured, but it can cause trouble with babies.

If consumed with honey, the bacteria can multiply in your baby’s intestines and affect the nervous system. This condition is called infant botulism. It can cause different complications, such as muscle weakness and issues with breathing and swallowing.

Although infant botulism can be treated, it’s recommended not to expose infants to honey until they’re a year old.

Does Immunotherapy Help?

Some have tried to consume small amounts of honey for their immune system to stop rejecting the allergen. This practice derives from a concept called immunotherapy.

The issue with this approach is that you can never know what exactly is in the honey you’re consuming. Honey always consists of a variety of pollen, although the main part of the mixture may come from one plant type only.

The other problem is if you don’t know which component of the honey acts as an allergen within your body. In this case, it’s smart to start consuming small amounts of processed honey, which is pasteurized and filtered.

Treating a Honey Allergy

If you’re dealing with only mild allergy symptoms, you can usually buy over-the-counter antihistamines. If the symptoms get worse or don’t improve in a short time, visit your doctor immediately.

Honey and other bee products are used in a variety of food. If you’re used to having a severe allergic reaction, pay close attention to the ingredients list, especially when buying processed food. If you’re not sure which allergen affects your body, consult your doctor to make additional allergy tests.

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