Can Smelling Peanuts Cause an Allergic Reaction?

The smell of peanuts could indicate peanut dust in the air

Bowl of peanuts

Verywell / Zorica Lakonic

If you're allergic to peanuts, you can't have an allergic reaction just to the smell of peanuts.

That's despite an urban legend that says if you smell peanuts or peanut butter, you're at risk. The real culprit in these situations isn't the smell itself, but peanut dust.

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

Proteins and Peanut Allergy

Your allergy to peanuts actually is an allergy to the specific proteins found in peanuts. These proteins are present in the peanuts themselves, and in foods made with the whole peanut.

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

Those specific proteins also aren't present in the airborne compounds that create the odor of peanuts. The smell is contained in smaller organic compounds that aren't peanut protein.

You inhale and potentially ingest these flavor and aroma compounds when you smell peanuts, but since they don't contain the problematic proteins, you won't react to them.

Smell Research

Medical researchers have tested the peanut odor for allergic reactions.

They exposed 30 children with peanut allergies to peanut butter and a soy butter placebo for 10 minutes each at a range of one foot.

Although the subjects could smell the peanut butter (and the soy butter), none of them reacted to the peanut butter 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" 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 any dust or small pieces of peanut are floating in the air. Peanut butter is sticky, not dusty.

One exception is if you're smelling peanut butter near a nut-butter grinder, like some upscale grocery stores and health food stores have. 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.

Places With Inhalation Problems

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—oils 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 that way, 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.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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. Greenhawt M. Environmental exposure to peanut and the risk of an allergic reactionAnn Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2018;120(5):476-481.e3. doi:10.1016/j.anai.2018.03.011

  2. Mueller GA, Maleki SJ, Pedersen LC. The molecular basis of peanut allergyCurr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2014;14(5):429. doi:10.1007/s11882-014-0429-5

  3. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: Allergist. Does peanut oil cause allergic reactions?

  4. Cipolla D, Froehlich J, Gonda I. Comment on: inhaled antimicrobial therapy--barriers to effective treatment, by J. Weers, inhaled antimicrobial therapy - barriers to effective treatment, Adv. Drug Deliv. Rev. (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.addr.2014.08.013Adv Drug Deliv Rev. 2015;85:e6-e7. doi:10.1016/j.addr.2015.04.015

  5. Simonte SJ, Ma S, Mofidi S, Sicherer SH. Relevance of casual contact with peanut butter in children with peanut allergyJ Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003;112(1):180-182. doi:10.1067/mai.2003.1486

  6. Johnson RM, Barnes CS. Airborne concentrations of peanut proteinAllergy Asthma Proc. 2013;34(1):59-64. doi:10.2500/aap.2013.34.3622

  7. Beyer K, Morrow E, Li XM, et al. Effects of cooking methods on peanut allergenicityJ Allergy Clin Immunol. 2001;107(6):1077-1081. doi:10.1067/mai.2001.115480