Sulfite sensitivity

A small percentage of individuals develop sulfite sensitivity. Sulfites are preservatives utilized in various food products to prevent discoloration. These are commonly used in wine, beer, pickled foods, dried fruit and some medications. Sulfite sensitivity can develop at any age and the exact reasons are not yet known.

Possible causes and symptoms of sulfite sensitivity

Most of the reactions to sulfite sensitivity occur after inhalation of sulfur dioxide which is generated by sulfites while eating. The risk for a reaction depends on the level of sulfite, food type and sensitivity level of the individual. In most cases, asthma symptoms are triggered such as shortness of breath and wheezing. Other symptoms that can develop which include the following:

  • Urticaria or skin rash
  • Nausea
    Sulfite sensitivity

    If the individual is at risk for anaphylaxis, the doctor will prescribe an injectable epinephrine that the individual should bring along at all times.

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

In rare cases, the individual might end up with a life-threatening reaction or anaphylaxis. In case the throat swells, drop in the blood pressure, difficulty breathing or weak rapid pulse, it is vital to seek immediate medical attention.

Testing and diagnosis

Once you suspect that an individual has sulfite sensitivity, a doctor should be consulted. In most cases, it is usually confirmed via a challenge procedure. The individual is administered small gradual doses of sulfite at 20-30 minute intervals.

The doctor will also monitor the individual closely for any indications of an asthmatic reaction. Once this occurs, the lung function is measured and a bronchodilator is given to manage the symptoms. In most cases, the process typically takes 2-2 ½ hours.

Management and prevention

The doctor will prescribe an inhaled bronchodilator to manage the symptoms. The oral antihistamines can also relieve other symptoms such as hives or itchiness. If the individual is at risk for anaphylaxis, the doctor will prescribe an injectable epinephrine that the individual should bring along at all times. When needed, a shot is administered into the thigh at the initial sign of a serious reaction. Family members and friends should learn how to use it as well. After a shot is given, bring the individual directly to the nearest emergency department.

What are the foods that contain sulfites?

The ideal way to prevent a reaction is to avoid all foods and beverages that contain sulfites. It is important to note that the FDA has banned the use of sulfites in vegetables and fruits that are eaten raw but can be used in dried fruit, canned foods, juices and jams.

Sulfites are also used in potato chips, soup mixes, fresh or frozen shrimp, pickled foods and some condiments. They are also present in alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer. The individual should read the labels carefully to stay safe.

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