Barbecue Smoke Allergy

A burger being flipped on a very smoky barbecue

 Giang Nguyen / Getty Images

Barbecues are an American tradition, and nothing says summer or tailgating like an outdoor cookout with friends. Many people are familiar with non-allergic rhinitis symptoms such as itchy eyes, an itchy, runny nose that can result from standing too close to the 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. Unfortunately, whether the barbecue uses wood or charcoal won't make a difference as smoke from either material can be just as bad.

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 Allergy

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

Protective Precautions

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, Benadryl or another fast-acting antihistamine can ease symptoms, but these medications can cause drowsiness.

It may be prudent to carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you to barbecues if you have a history of extreme allergic reactions. 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, call 911.

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Article Sources
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