Deadly allergic reaction to just the smell of cooking fish? Northeast Ohio doctor confirms it can happen

11 year-old NY child died of severe asthma attack this week
A University Hospitals doctor says fish can be an airborne allergen causing an allergic...
A University Hospitals doctor says fish can be an airborne allergen causing an allergic reaction from simply smelling fish being cooked.(Source: Pixabay)
Updated: Jan. 4, 2019 at 1:29 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) -Authorities are still investigating the death of an 11 year-old boy who simply walked into his grandmother’s home on New Year’s Day while she was cooking fish.

The child’s father said they knew he had a fish allergy, and kept him from eating fish, but didn’t know the smell could cause a massive asthma attack that reportedly killed him.

“Unfortunately, fish allergen is airborne so I have seen reactions when people are in contacts with fish being cooked such as at fish fries and sometimes in restaurants,” Dr. Sam Friedlander with University Hospitals said. “Typically the reactions I’ve seen are milder such as hives or mild throat irritation.”

In extreme cases, like the 11 year-old in Brooklyn, the reaction can cause a severe asthma attack.

“People get throat swelling and it constricts the airway so that they can’t breathe,” Dr. Friedlander said. “And in asthma the constriction is lower in the airways and people are not able to get oxygen to the vital organs. There is a huge inflammatory reaction, mucus coats the inside of the airways and the smooth muscles of the airways tighten the airways.”

I also asked Friedlander why we seem to be hearing of more and more people having, sometimes severe, allergic reactions.

“This is a complicated answer that we feel is related to the hygiene hypothesis,” Dr. Friedlander said. “Briefly, our environment is becoming too clean, parts of the immune system are not needed to fight as many infections and so the immune system is becoming more allergic.”

Pollen is the most common airborne allergen but there are others:

  • Pollens 
  • House dust mites 
  • Mold spores 
  • Food 

As for parents with a child who has a peanut allergy, “The good news is that peanut is a different type of allergen and it’s not typically airborne. They should be cautious at sporting events, though, where peanuts maybe tossed around such as baseball games,” according to Dr. Friedlander.

“Other foods can aersolized like steaming milk, or frying eggs but it’s very rare. For instance, once I saw someone working for a major food manufacturer have a reaction to egg flour. But fish and shellfish are more commonly seen,” Dr. Friedlander said.

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