31 Everyday Things You Didn't Know You Could Be Allergic To
Everybody knows somebody with an allergy to pollen, dust, pet dander, or peanuts (maybe you even have one of these common ailments yourself). But you may be surprised about some of the lesser known materials, foods, or environments that an cause allergic reactions in certain people.
An allergic reaction occurs when the body misreads something that’s typically harmless as being dangerous, explains Kevin McGrath, MD, spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. “The immune system creates special white blood cells, called antibodies, to defend against this apparent threat similarly to how it would fight an infection or illness,” he says. (That’s where symptoms like swelling, itching, runny nose, and wheezing come in.)
People must be born with a genetic predisposition to allergies, but scientists don’t know exactly why or how they become allergic to specific things. And while many allergens are quite common, others are much rarer. Here are some of the more interesting cases allergists have seen in their practice, and what you can do if you’re affected.
- Inexpensive silver-colored jewelry is often made with nickel—one of the most common causes of an itchy rash known as allergic contact dermatitis. About 17% of women and 3% of men have a nickel allergy, says Dr. McGrath; the gender difference is largely due to the fact that women have more exposure to nickel through jewelry (especially piercings), which raises their risk of becoming sensitized.
- Switching to high-quality sterling silver or 14-karat gold jewelry usually solves this problem, says Dr. McGrath, although he has heard of very rare allergic reactions to gold, as well. “When people wear a lot of gold jewelry and a lot of makeup, the chemicals in the makeup can actually break down the gold and cause reactions with the skin.” For these people, he says, platinum is the best bet.
Cell phones and tablets
- People with metal allergies may have trouble using cellular phones, PDAs, and tablet devices, (including iPhones and iPads), as these products often contain potential allergens nickel and cobalt. “People can get rashes on their face, ears, and hands, and irritation in the eyes if they touch their phone and then touch their eyes,” says Dr. McGrath.
- Once you have a metal allergy, you're sensitive to it for life. But most people are able to safely use these devices as long as they’re covered with a protective case—as long as the case itself contains no metal, of course.
Nickel strikes again, this time on your clothing. “The button on the waist of jeans and other pants is usually nickel,” says Dr. McGrath. “For people who wear low-rise underwear, that metal can be exposed directly on the skin and cause a little circular red rash.”
Wearing a layer between your pants and your skin (like tucking in your shirt) can help, he says; so can painting over the back of the button with clear nail polish. If you do realize you’re sensitive to the nickel in your jeans, watch out for it in eyeglass frames, watches, coins, and zippers.
We know, wool is itchy. But some people who are sensitized to lanolin—a natural wax-like substance produced by sheep—can react even more strongly to apparel and blankets made with wool.
Lanolin is also used in some cosmetics, lip balms, shampoos, and ointments. People with a sensitivity to this ingredient should look for items that are labeled lanolin-free.
Flea market furniture
If you have a known allergy to dust or mold, be careful what items you bring into your home—especially if you don’t know their history or what could be lurking inside them. “Non-washable fabrics, upholstered furniture, and carpets can all harbor dust mites and mold spores,” says Donna S. Hummell, MD, medical director of the Vanderbilt University Asthma, Sinus, and Allergy Program.
Dust and mold are common in most homes already, she adds, but heavily contaminated items can make allergy symptoms worse—or even, in some cases, trigger asthma attacks.
Laundry detergent and dryer sheets
Some ingredients in laundry detergents and fabric softeners—especially dyes and scents—can cause people to break out with contact allergic reactions, says Dr. McGrath. And you don’t just have to get the liquid itself on your skin; it can be transferred into the clothes you wear, the towels you use, or the sheets you sleep on.
“We’ve also seen reactions caused by dryer sheets,” Dr. McGrath adds. “Often when people stop using dryer sheets for a while or change up their detergent, their rash goes away.”
- Averse reactions to strong scents or flavors (like sneezing or coughing after eating hot pepper) are often caused by an irritant effect, rather than a true allergy, says Dr. McGrath. But he does occasionally have patients who develop a true immune-system response to plant-based products like herbs, spices, and essential oils.
- “One thing we see is allergic reactions to chamomile tea, because it can cross-react with ragweed,” he says. (This means that proteins in chamomile and ragweed are similar enough that allergic people can react to both.) If you have hay fever, you’re more likely to experience itchiness, runny nose, or even hives while drinking this herbal tea.
Raw produce and nuts
- Cross-reactivity with pollen and grasses can also cause some people to have allergic reactions to raw fruits such as apples, peaches, bananas, melons, and tomatoes. Vegetables like celery, carrots, onions, and potatoes, along with peanuts and hazelnuts, can also cause itchy mouths and inflammation.
- “People think that it must be a chemical or something used in the growing process, but it’s actually part of the food—not something you can wash off,” says Dr. McGrath. The good news? People can almost always eat these items cooked without experiencing symptoms.
- People who are allergic to latex can experience an irritating rash when exposed to products—like condoms—made with the plant-based rubber. Some people can even have an immediate, life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which can include difficulty breathing and swallowing.
- Fortunately, many items that used to be made with latex (including gloves, hospital equipment, and balloons) are now made with safer materials, says Dr. Hummell. Most condoms still contain latex, but those with an allergy can use synthetic rubber or lambskin alternatives (here's everything you should know about the nine most common types of condoms on the market).
Cosmetics and skin-care products
Chemicals in makeup, lotions, and sunscreens can sometimes cause a rash known as contact dermatitis, which may show up hours or days after exposure. An allergist or a dermatologist may be able to diagnose these types of sensitivities with a procedure called a patch test.
If you know that you’re sensitive to certain products, you can also test yourself before using a new formula. “Take a tiny bit and apply it to the same area of skin three days in a row at night before you go to bed,” says Dr. Hummell. “If you don't have a rash by the end of the third or fourth day, you’re probably going to tolerate it well.”
Ingredients in cleaning products can also cause a similar contact rash. “These types of skin reactions aren’t immediate,” says Dr. Hummell. “Initially, it may just look a little red or irritated. But over time you become sensitized to it, and within days, a more chronic rash may appear.” (In this way, it’s similar to a poison ivy reaction.)
Skin reactions like these generally don’t trigger life-threatening complications like throat swelling, heart problems, or asthma attacks, the way that other allergies can. But because they can cause serious discomfort and irritation, identifying the cause (and then avoiding it) is still important.
Used bookstores and libraries are known for their musty air and familiar smell—but people with dust allergies can have serious problems in spaces like these when thick layers of dust are stirred up. The same goes for attics, basements, storage rooms, and, yes, the bookshelves in your house.
To keep allergens from accumulating on your home collection, wipe down surfaces and books (and other collectibles) often. And if you’re in the presence of old dusty volumes, consider wearing a mask that filters fine airborne particles.
You may be careful about choosing a houseplant that you’re not allergic to—most don’t pollinate, fortunately—but what about the dirt it’s planted in? Soil can harbor mold spores, a very common allergen, especially when plants are kept out of direct sunlight or aren’t given time to dry between waterings.
Mold can also grow on leaves and stems that are too moist, and dust (yup, another allergen) can build up on plants that aren’t tended to often.
Plush toys and collectibles can be teeming with dust mites, which can trigger a runny nose, wheezing and coughing, and even asthma attacks in children or adults who are allergic.
To avoid this hidden hazard, only buy stuffed toys that can be put through the washer and dryer, and launder them once a month. For the same reason, pillows should also be washed regularly or encased in allergy-proof coverings.
Most people aren’t allergic to leather, but some do have reactions to the additives used to tan and treat the material. “People can break out or get redness and itchiness on their feet if those chemicals leak into their socks and get against their skin,” says Dr. McGrath.
Not all leathers have these additives, he says, so it may take some trial and error—or switching to another material altogether—to find relief.
Very rarely, women can have an allergic reaction to their partners’ semen, which can include redness, burning, itching, and swelling in areas where the fluid was exposed to their skin. This allergy is often person-specific, says Dr. Hummell, so a woman may experience it with one partner but not with others.
Once this allergy is diagnosed, doctors may be able to perform desensitization (similar to allergy shots) that can help a couple have sex without these symptoms. Couples who are trying to get pregnant can also consider intrauterine insemination or in vitro fertilization.
“It’s very, very rare, but there are people who get cold-induced hives,” says Dr. McGrath. This can happen during a sudden temperature drop—from going indoors to outdoors in the wintertime, for example. Doctors test for this condition, known as cold urticaria, by holding an ice cube to a patient’s skin for five minutes and watching for a reaction.
People who suffer from cold urticaria should always wear lots of layers when going outdoors, says Dr. McGrath. They should also avoid jumping into cold water—their bodies’ inflammatory response could cause them to lose consciousness.
Other rare reactions can be caused by scratching, rubbing, vibration, or even exposure to water. This condition, known as dermatographism, can sometimes be treated with antihistamines.
“For these people, even just a tiny bit of trauma to the skin—like a scratch of a fingernail or the rub of a belt or a bra strap—can cause them to break out into hives a few minutes later,” says Dr. McGrath. “It’s not the material or the fabric, but it’s the rubbing motion itself.”
- There are several rare conditions that could cause a person to become “allergic to the sun,” and to experience redness, swelling, itching, and blisters or hives when exposed to ultraviolet light for even a short time.
- Taking certain medications can cause this type of sensitivity to the sun, but in some cases doctors don’t know what causes it. Some mild cases go away on their own, but more serious problems may require treatment with steroids.
Usually if anyone who says they're allergic to alcohol, they’re actually sensitive to an ingredient in certain drinks. A common allergen is sulfites, says Dr. McGrath, which are compounds present in red wine and dark beer that can cause itchy eyes and a runny or stuffy nose.
Other root causes of allergies to booze can include hops or gluten (in beer), potatoes (in vodka), and mixers made with fruits or nuts (in cocktails). Dr. McGrath says he’s heard of people being physically allergic to alcohol itself, but he’s never seen a case himself.
For people with dust allergies, vacuuming and even sweeping up around the house can be extremely difficult. “Cleaning of any sort really tends to stir things up,” says Dr. Hummell. Using a vacuum with a HEPA filter can trap some allergens within the unit—but it won’t prevent the “side scatter” that occurs around the vacuum as it’s pushed along carpet, she adds.
People who are sensitive to dust may want to wear a mask while vacuuming and cleaning. It’s also smart to leave the room for about 30 minutes vacuuming, while dust particles in the air settle back down. (After that is a good time to dust surfaces and change bedding, Hummel says.)
- People who break out in hives or have itching, swelling, or trouble breathing hours after they’ve eaten burgers or steak may have a condition known as alpha-gal allergy—a potentially serious reaction to mammal meat that develops in some people who’ve been bitten by the Lone Star tick.
- There’s no treatment for an alpha-gal allergy, says Dr. Hummel, but there is a blood test to determine if someone has it. People with this condition should avoid mammalian meat (like pork, lamb, and beef), but are safe to eat chicken and turkey.
Products used in nail salons, such as nail glue, polish, and acrylic nails themselves, can cause a contact dermatitis rash after exposure. This rash sometimes appears on the hands, says Dr. Hummell, but not always.
“The skin of the hands is less likely to break out because it’s thicker and has a different character than skin on the rest of the body,” she says. “So sometimes a woman will touch her face and break out on her face because of a product she’s using on her nails, even if her hands seem fine.”
- In recent years, allergists have begun reporting cases of patients experiencing allergy-like reactions—including nasal congestion, itchy eyes, wheezing, and coughing—from smoking marijuana. Asthma and seasonal allergy symptoms, triggered by exposure to cannabis plants themselves, has also been reported.
- As the herbal substance becomes legal in more states, more of these cases are expected to arise. Doctors recommend avoiding marijuana if you have an allergy, but also say that antihistamines, steroid nasal sprays, and decongestants may help treat symptoms.
Having a strange reaction to your Christmas tree? It could be from terpenes, the fragrant chemicals in tree sap. Real trees can also hide mold spores, warns Dr. McGrath.
Artificial trees are usually less allergenic, but Dr. McGrath cautions about bringing a dusty tree up from the basement or in from the garage once a year. “Store it in a double layer of plastic,” he advises. “Cut the first dusty layer off in the basement and throw that out right away, then carry the clean layer through the house so you’re not spreading those particles everywhere.”
Chlorinated bleach or pool water doesn’t actually cause allergic reactions, says Dr. McGrath. But it can have a strong irritant effect on airways, eyes, and skin—and for people who are sensitive to its fumes, it can make existing allergies worse or trigger asthma attacks.
Chlorine sensitivities are most common in people who have spent a lot of time in or around the chemical—like lifeguards, serious swimmers, and professional cleaners. For people who have trouble swimming in chlorinated water, saltwater pools may provide relief.
If you’re worried about mold or dust mites in your home, you may be running a dehumidifier to keep humidity low. That’s a great step in the right direction—but if you don’t clean and properly empty the unit that’s collecting that excess moisture, it could sabotage your good intentions by growing mold itself.
If you have the opposite problem—a very dry home—keep in mind that humidifiers can also grow mold if not properly maintained. In fact, people with mold allergies should be on the lookout for anywhere in their home where moisture can and mold could potentially grow, including decorative fountains, fish tanks, and areas with leaky faucets or plumbing.
“There’s really no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog,” says Dr. McGrath. “Some people are allergic to certain breeds, so if that’s the case you may be able to find one—like a poodle—that doesn’t cause your symptoms. But other people have reactions to all types of dogs, and there’s not much you can do about that.”
Choosing a dog that doesn’t shed won’t make much difference to someone who’s truly allergic, either, because the true source of pet allergies isn’t their fur—it’s a protein in their saliva, urine, and skin glands.
- As tattoos have become more popular in the United States, so have allergic reactions to tattoo ink. One study found that red ink caused the most problems (including redness, swelling, and itching, above and beyond normal tattoo side effects), but no dye can be guaranteed 100% allergen-free, says Dr. McGrath. Even black henna, a dye used for temporary tattoo art, can cause reactions in some people.
- You can reduce your risk of having a reaction by making sure you get inked at a clean, reputable facility, and by getting a tiny mark tattooed on your skin at least 24 hours before having the full design done. Some reactions may not appear for years, however, so always see your doctor if any tattoo begins to look or feel different.
Allergies to hair dye only affect about 1 in every 250,000 people, but when they do occur they can be serious. In 2014, NCIS actress Pauley Perrette tweeted a photo of herself with a very swollen face after experiencing a reaction to black hair dye; the next year, a British woman made headlines for nearly dying after attempting to go blonde.
Nearly all hair dyes contain the same chemicals, says Dr. McGrath, so if you find you’re allergic to one it may be unsafe to use other types. As with tattoos, always test a product on your skin before doing a full dye-job.