Can Smelling Peanuts Cause an Allergic Reaction?

Bowl of peanuts

Verywell / Zorica Lakonic

If you're allergic to peanuts, simply picking up their scent won't cause an allergic reaction. But there is a catch: If the air you sniff contains peanut dust, it might.

Luckily, and contrary to popular belief, small peanut particles like this are not typically airborne. However, they can make their way into a whiff in certain circumstances.

This article looks at what you react to when you have a peanut allergy, what research shows about allergies and odors, when and why peanut dust and particles can be a problem, and what impact cooking peanuts has on your potential to react.

Peanut Odor Doesn't Contain Proteins

Having a peanut allergy means your immune system reacts to the specific proteins found in peanuts. These proteins are present in the peanuts themselves, as well as foods made with the whole peanut.

The proteins aren't present in purified peanut oil, which is why most people who are allergic to peanuts can consume it without a reaction.

They also aren't present in the airborne compounds that create the scent of peanuts. The odor is contained in smaller organic compounds that don't stem from peanut protein, so inhaling or even ingesting them won't trigger an allergic response.

Research

Researchers have looked at exposure to peanut odor and allergic reactions.

In one often-quoted study, researchers from Mount Sinai School of Medicine exposed 30 children with peanut allergies to real peanut butter and a decoy peanut butter (soy butter) for 10 minutes each at a range of one foot. Participants were not aware of which was which.

Although the subjects could smell the peanut butter (and the soy butter), none of them reacted to the aroma.

Many of these children had a history of contact-based or inhalation reactions to peanuts. The researchers concluded that "casual exposure to peanut butter" (in other words, touching peanut butter or smelling its odor) shouldn't cause problems in 90% of children who are highly sensitive to peanuts.

That leaves 10% who could react to casual exposure, so you still should be careful.

Peanut Dust and Particles

Reactions that appear to involve the smell of peanuts in the air are really about what you're actually inhaling. Peanut dust and small airborne peanut particles can cause an allergic reaction.

If all you're smelling is peanut butter, it's unlikely that any dust or small pieces of peanut are floating in the air. Peanut butter's sticky consistency helps with that.

One exception is if you're smelling peanut butter near a nut-butter grinder, which may be found in some health food stores. These machines pose a real risk and you should stay away.

If people are shelling and eating peanuts near you, they can spread peanut dust in the air. That means you could not only be smelling peanuts but actually inhaling dust and particles.

Dust inhalation is an issue at stadiums that serve peanuts and in some stores and restaurants that offer unshelled peanuts for customers to snack on.

Cooking Releases Oils

In addition, when foods are cooked, they often release oils into the air that can contain allergenic proteins and cause reactions.

Boiled peanuts, or certain types of Asian foods that include peanuts and peanut sauce, could pose this risk.

Finally, trace amounts of peanut products can get onto your hands and be ingested when you touch your mouth, causing a reaction—even if there's no peanut dust in the air.

So if you smell peanuts, you should be careful to wash your hands before eating or moving your hands near your mouth.

Summary

Peanut allergies are caused by a protein in peanuts. The protein isn't present in the smell, so just the odor of peanuts can't cause a reaction.

However, if people are grinding, shelling, or cooking peanuts near you, it could release peanut dust, particles, or oils into the air. Those do contain the problem proteins and can trigger a reaction.

A Word From Verywell

While the smell of peanuts won't cause a reaction, it can warn you of the possible presence of actual peanut dust or oils in the air.

So, if you're severely peanut-allergic, react to the smell as if it could be dangerous and take precautions. Better safe than sorry.

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7 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.
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