Barbecue Smoke Allergy

Many people are familiar with non-allergic symptoms such as itchy eyes, an itchy, runny nose that can result from standing too close to a barbeque grill. However, people with allergies or asthma may need to think twice about invitations to summer barbecues. While most don't realize it, certain types of wood and charcoal used for grilling can trigger symptoms in people with those conditions.

A burger being flipped on a very smoky barbecue
Giang Nguyen / Getty Images

Tree Wood and Pollen Transfer

Trees like cedar, oak, hickory, and mesquite are commonly used in barbecuing and contain a high amount of allergen in their wood and pollen. While some believe that the allergen is indestructible even if it is burned through combustion, other studies indicate that smoke from certain trees contains no allergens.  During barbecuing, the allergen may stay in the smoke and is transported through the air.

Problems start when the allergen-containing smoke comes in contact with the eyes, mucous membranes, and skin. Symptoms are often mild but can become very severe in people with full-blown wood allergy or ​asthma.

In addition, since the offending allergen can be transferred to food during the cooking process, some may also experience oral-related symptoms after eating foods that are cooked using the offending type of wood.

Charcoal-Related Reactions

Soot produced when charcoal burns are the main trigger for irritant reactions and can cause existing asthma to flare. Symptoms are typically respiratory-related (a runny nose, sneezing, difficulty breathing), but the skin and the eyes may also react in certain situations. In addition to triggering asthma symptoms, charcoal has also been implicated in the development of cancer due to the cancer-causing substances it releases while burning.


If you know you are allergic to woods such as cedar, oak, mesquite, and hickory, or have a history of allergic reactions during barbecues, your best bet is to use a gas or electric grill for your cookouts. While the food cooked on a gas grill might not have the same smoked flavor, there are dry rubs, marinades, and cooking techniques you can use to boost flavor.

When you receive an invitation to a barbecue, ask the hosts about how they will be cooking and, if they will be using wood or charcoal, consider bringing your own main dish or sticking to sides. Finally, when eating at a restaurant, be sure to ask your server the same questions.

Treating Wood and Charcoal Smoke Allergies

For most people with an allergy to wood or charcoal smoke, symptoms will dissipate on their own. When needed, cetirizine (generic Zyrtec), a non-sedating antihistamine, can ease non-life-threatening symptoms. Diphenhydramine can also be use but because it may cause sedation, caution should be exercised.

If you have a history of extreme allergic reactions to environmental or food allergens, your physician will prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector that you should carry at all times, including to any barbecue you are invited to. In very rare cases, exposure to wood or charcoal smoke can trigger a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. If you experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, tightness in your throat, hives, vomiting, or dizziness, use your Epi-Pen immediately, and then go to an emergency room or call 911.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Goetz DW, Goetz MA, Whisman BA. Mountain cedar allergens found in nonpollen tree parts. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 1995;75(3):256-60. PMID: 7552928

  2. More DR, Hagan LL, Whisman BA, Jordan-Wagner D. Identification of Specific IgE to Mesquite Wood Smoke in Individuals with Mesquite Pollen Allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2002;110(5):814-6. doi:10.1067/mai.2002.129034

  3. Guarnieri M, Balmes JR. Outdoor air pollution and asthma. Lancet. 2014;383(9928):1581–1592. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60617-6

  4. Dalal R, Grujic D. Epinephrine. In: StatPearls [Internet]. 2019 PMID: 29489283

Additional Reading

By Daniel More, MD
Daniel More, MD, is a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist. He is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and currently practices at Central Coast Allergy and Asthma in Salinas, California.