Eight common foods cause 90% of food allergies; Bell pepper is not one of them. That is little consolation for those who suffer from this less common food allergy.
Food allergies are caused by a number of different proteins and enzymes present in the food. The allergen, the substance which causes an allergy, in this case is Bell pepper (Capsicum annuum), or more specifically, one of the proteins or enzymes contained in Bell pepper.
All peppers contain capsicum, the stuff that makes peppers hot, in varying amounts. Also present in peppers, in differing amounts or not at all, are profilins, Bet V1 (a common food allergen), and protein P23. A sampling of ten different peppers might all look the same, but, depending on the strain, a person with a pepper allergy might react to all of them, only three of them, or none of them.
An allergy is the body's immune system response to an allergen. On the first exposure to an allergen, the body becomes sensitized. No symptoms of an allergic reaction are noticed but the body produces an antibody IgE. At the next exposure to the allergen, the body is prepared to defend itself against the allergen. More IgE is produced and an allergic reaction occurs which may include runny nose, sneezing, wheezing, itching, swelling, hives, vomiting, stomach cramps or diarrhea. With each subsequent exposure to the allergen, the body has an increased allergic response. This type of allergy is known as a Class I or complete food allergy.
A person allergic to Bell pepper may also react to other nightshade vegetables such as tomato, eggplant, potato, or tobacco. This is known as a cross-reaction and occurs when a person who has developed sensitivity to one allergen is exposed to a similar allergen from another source. The allergy that results from a cross-reaction is known as a Class II or incomplete food allergy. The allergen in a Class II allergy is capable of eliciting allergy symptoms even though the person has never been sensitized. This means a person might experience symptoms upon the first exposure to a new food.
Those with Bell pepper allergy must also be alert for a possible allergy to latex. 70% of those with latex allergy experience cross-reactions with food. Many foods can elicit this cross-reaction response and Bell pepper is one of the more common elicitors. For a list of foods, go to http://www.aaaai.org/aadmc/ate/category.asp?cat=9887
The symptoms of cross-reactive allergies are usually limited to Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS), characterized by itching, tingling, swelling, and lesions in and around the mouth. A less common occurrence with OAS is anaphylaxis, the life-threatening allergic response resulting in narrowing airways, decreased blood pressure and heart malfunction.
Typically, OAS is limited to symptoms in and around the oral cavity. Symptoms will resolve with time or may be treated with over-the-counter oral antihistamines like loratadine (Claritin) or chlorpheniramine (Chlor-trimeton). Hydroxizine HCL (Atarax, Vistaril) is available by prescription for severe symptoms.
All food allergies are to be taken seriously. Though the symptoms may be mild and considered "worth it" for a favorite food, the reaction can become severe without warning. Any time food allergy is suspected, a trip to the doctor is in order for a definitive diagnosis. Any swelling in the throat or difficulty breathing is cause to seek immediate medical attention.
Bell pepper allergy may not be common, but management is the same as for any food allergy. Avoid the allergen, be on the alert for any cross-reactions, and treat symptoms right away. In spite of the best efforts, an inadvertent exposure will occur. Be prepared by visiting the family doctor or allergist with the first experience of an allergic reaction. Education and having the appropriate medications on hand have made the difference between life and death from a food allergy reaction.