Coconut allergy: can coconut oil make your skin itch?

Coconut is present in a large amount of products, whether that's food or haircare. While coconut allergy is very rare, it can be very distressing for those who do struggle with it. Thankfully, there are treatment options available.

Is coconut a nut allergy?

Firstly, let's debunk a myth by clarifying that coconut is not a nut; therefore, it is not a 'nut' allergy. In fact, coconut is more correctly called a drupe. This is the name for a fruit with a hard shell that protects the seed inside. However, some botanists disagree.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says coconut can be classified as a tree nut, a seed, or a fruit. This can be confusing for those with a tree nut allergy, which describes allergies to nuts that grow on trees, including hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, almonds, and pistachios. Those with a coconut allergy might expect themselves to react to tree nuts, and vice versa, but it isn't necessarily the case. Coconut is a member of the palm tree family and is only distantly related to tree nuts.

However, if you have a diagnosed tree nut allergy and you are concerned about whether you can eat coconut, you should discuss this with your GP or allergy specialist for guidance.

How common is coconut allergy?

Coconut allergy is relatively rare. Only a few cases have been reported in medical literature.

Dr Fox explains the science behind coconut allergies, as described in the Allergen Encyclopaedia.

"Coconut does not share the same genetic origin as tree nuts. Allergy specialists do not regard coconut as a tree nut, and people with tree nut allergies are not normally advised to avoid coconut," explains Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy.

While coconut allergy is rare, allergies, in general, are on the increase. Every year, an extra 5% of people are affected by allergies. Currently, 1 in 3 of the adult population in the UK are thought to suffer from some form of allergy.

Therefore, any concerns regarding possible allergies should be taken seriously.

Coconut allergy symptoms

Much like other allergies, allergic reactions to coconut have a range of symptoms from mild to severe. Not everyone will present with all symptoms, but they can include:

  • Allergic rhinitis (a reaction that irritates your nose and causes cold-like symptoms). It can lead to sneezing, coughing, and runny, itchy eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Hives (urticaria) is a type of contact dermatitis associated with a red, itchy, sometimes blistering, skin rash.
  • Asthma symptoms, such as breathlessness and coughing, can worsen.

Anaphylaxis has been reported, with the typical symptoms of breathing difficulties and cardiorespiratory collapse, although this is rare.

Does coconut cause itching?

"If you are allergic to coconut, it is likely you will experience itching of the skin where it was exposed to coconut products. This is because the coconut allergen causes specialised cells called mast cells, to release the chemical, histamine," says Dr Fox.

Histamine causes your local blood vessels to dilate, drawing more blood to the area and making your skin look red and feel warm. The nerves in your skin become sensitive, leading to the itching sensation.

While having itchy skin can be incredibly uncomfortable, you should also be wary of scratching it. Doing so can be dangerous, as it might lead to bleeding and/or infection. There's a chance of you scratching in your sleep so you may need to take measures to prevent this. You can take antihistamines to block histamine release and reduce itching safely and effectively.

Why does coconut oil irritate the skin?

Dr Fox explains how coconut oil can be an excellent treatment for eczema or dry skin, but only for those who are not allergic to it. Therefore, you should always do a small patch test on the skin with a new oil and wait 24 hours before applying it to larger areas of your skin.

"For those who have a coconut allergy, applying coconut oil to the skin will result in a local allergic reaction. In mild cases, this could just be a patch of urticaria. If more severe, it could also cause local contact dermatitis. With prolonged use, this could appear as atopic dermatitis - eczema - which is a skin condition of itchy, cracked, and sore patches."

There's also potential for scalp dermatitis to develop on the scalp if your haircare products contain coconut oil. This can cause your scalp to become red, flaky, and itchy.

"If you want to use coconut oil, choose unrefined, extra virgin, organic coconut oil. This helps ensure no harsh chemicals that could also cause allergies have been used in the manufacturing process," suggests Dr Fox.

Which products contain coconut?

Coconut is found in a variety of products, ranging from types of foods like infant formula, to products you might use in your skincare routine.

In terms of what you can consume, raw coconut can be eaten fresh, and many people drink coconut milk. Coconut is sometimes dried to make desiccated coconut, while coconut oil is often used for cooking, and creamed coconut or coconut milk is used in many recipes.

As for health and beauty items, coconut is commonly found in skin and haircare products. One study reported that 77% of shampoos, and 76% of body soaps, contained coconut.

"The topical application of coconut might give rise to local symptoms such as urticaria or contact dermatitis - which on the scalp manifests as scalp eczema. Local application, inhalation or ingestion of coconut could cause allergic rhinitis, or a flare-up of asthma," says Dr Fox, stressing the importance of always reading the labels on food products and beauty products carefully. This is especially important since anaphylaxis can develop in serious cases. This is a severe life-threatening reaction to a trigger that causes the body to go into shock.

Can you treat a coconut allergy?

Firstly, your diagnosis of coconut allergy will need to be confirmed by your GP or an allergy specialist, which is done via skin prick testing or blood tests. The skin prick test involves having a tiny amount of coconut injected under your skin and watching for a reaction, while the blood tests look for specific IgE antibodies, which are produced by the immune system and cause allergic reactions. This must be done in a specialist allergy centre because of the considerable risk of anaphylaxis.

If you are diagnosed with coconut allergy, you will be advised to avoid exposure to coconut. This can be difficult, as many products contain elements of coconut, and you might be used to it as part of your diet. Therefore, you should try to check labels and make small lifestyle changes where possible.

"It is also recommended that you wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace. You can buy these for various allergies, and they signify to others that you have an allergy," says Dr Fox.

You should take the opportunity to recognise the serious signs of anaphylaxis, and how to use an EpiPen. This may be vital if you experience a serious reaction.

For mild allergy symptoms, you can take antihistamines, and use topical steroid creams on the skin.

anaphylaxis
Read next
newnav-downnewnav-up