Do I Have a Garlic Allergy?

Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, MD, MPH on November 21, 2016Written by Corey Whelan on November 21, 2016

Overview

Garlic can add terrific flavor to foods. It’s often celebrated for its potential health benefits. However, some people are allergic to garlic.

A garlic allergy is rare. If you’re allergic to garlic, you can be allergic to cooked or raw garlic, or to all forms.

A garlic allergy is caused when your body’s immune system mistakenly identifies garlic as being harmful and produces antibodies in an attempt to fight it off. This reaction can occur immediately upon contact, or within two hours after ingesting or touching garlic.

You can also have an adverse reaction to garlic without being allergic to it. This is known as a food intolerance, and is more common. A food intolerance to garlic may cause indigestion, heartburn, or gas. Unlike an allergy, a food intolerance is not caused by the immune system. The symptoms are typically less serious. Anaphylaxis is not a possible complication of food intolerance.

See your doctor if you experience regular discomfort after eating or handling garlic. They may refer you to an allergist. A garlic allergy can be diagnosed through a skin prick or blood test.

If you’re allergic to garlic, avoiding it completely will alleviate your symptoms. If you have a food intolerance to garlic, your doctor may recommend that you stop eating it. They may also suggest medications, such as over-the-counter antacids, to help with your symptoms.

Symptoms

Garlic allergy symptoms can range from mild to serious. They may include:

  • skin inflammation
  • hives
  • tingling sensation of the lips, mouth, or tongue
  • nasal congestion or runny nose
  • itchy nose
  • sneezing
  • itchy or watery eyes
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stomach cramps
  • diarrhea

If you’re allergic to garlic, symptoms can occur immediately or up to several hours after exposure. You may experience symptoms after inhaling, touching, or ingesting garlic.

If you have food intolerance to garlic, you may experience symptoms of the digestive tract, such as heartburn, diarrhea, or stomach pain. These can occur immediately or up to several hours after eating.

Cross-reactive foods and other foods to avoid

Garlic is part of the allium family. If you’re allergic to garlic, you may have an allergy to other foods in this group as well. The proteins, or allergens, in these plants are similar to each other, so your immune system may react to any of them. This is known as cross reactivity. Other vegetables in this group include:

  • onions
  • leeks
  • chives
  • shallots

You’ll need to be vigilant about checking the ingredients in foods you buy and order in restaurants. Garlic is found in many pre-packaged foods. These include:

  • canned soup
  • boxed rice and pasta
  • frozen entrées
  • salad dressing and other sauces

Garlic is also commonly used in stews and chili, potato dishes, and bread products. Sometimes it’s only noted on package labels as a flavoring and not listed by name. Many products include toll-free numbers you can call to ask about specific ingredients. If you’re in doubt, avoid the food in question.

Garlic is used in many ethnic cuisines, including Italian, Chinese, and Indian. When eating out, be sure to tell your server that you’re allergic to garlic. You may also want to create a food allergy card to use in restaurants.

Learn more about eating out with allergies: What you should know about food allergy cards »

Complications

If you’re allergic to garlic and breathe in even trace amounts of dust from either dried garlic or garlic skin, you may experience an allergy-induced asthma attack. Asthma symptoms include shortness of breath and wheezing. Asthma attacks can escalate quickly and become very serious if not treated. If you experience an asthma attack, call your local emergency service and seek immediate medical help.

An allergist can work with you on strategies for limiting your exposure to garlic. They can also recommend medications for asthma, which can help with symptoms.

Another potential complication from a garlic allergy is anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially fatal allergic reaction. Anaphylaxis caused by garlic allergy is rare. It’s more likely to occur from exposure to raw, rather than cooked, garlic.

Learn more: The effects of anaphylaxis on the body »

If you’ve ever experienced anaphylactic shock, or your doctor’s concerned that this type of reaction might occur, they’ll prescribe an EpiPen to carry around with you at all times. An EpiPen is a type of self-injected adrenaline you can administer to yourself in case of a severe allergic reaction. If you use your EpiPen, you should contact your doctor or call your local emergency service immediately afterward.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • rapid pulse
  • low blood pressure
  • swelling of the throat and tightened airways
  • dizziness
  • confusion or lightheadedness
  • loss of consciousness

Seeking help

Even if your allergic reactions to garlic have been mild in the past, be sure to take your symptoms seriously. Allergic reactions can escalate, sometimes without warning.

If you do have an allergic reaction, seeing your doctor while it’s occurring may help them recommend the right type of treatment. If you experience symptoms of either asthma or anaphylaxis, seek immediate medical help.

A specialist, such as an allergist, can recommend medications that may help with symptoms of a garlic allergy. These include over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines, allergy shots, and corticosteroids. Your doctor will work with you to determine the best type of treatment. They can also recommend strategies for avoiding garlic.

Outlook

Living with a garlic allergy requires ongoing vigilance, especially when eating out or shopping for pre-cooked or processed foods. The good news is that you can easily find healthy, flavorful garlic-free food options, both at the grocery store and in restaurants.

Food substitutes

Instead of garlic, you can use a multitude of flavorings and seasonings to create delicious, flavorful dishes. Here are some herbs you may want to try:

  • cumin
  • chili pepper
  • paprika
  • curry
  • fennel
  • oregano
  • basil

Learn to experiment with both dried and fresh versions of each spice for texture and flavor variety.

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