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Tips for Living With a Shellfish Allergy

I found out I was allergic to shellfish at the age of 62. I love shellfish, so this was a huge bummer.

No more Low Country boil for me.

No more Low Country boil for me.

My Allergy to Shellfish

I've always loved seafood! In fact, lobster, shrimp, and crab are my three favorite foods, and I ate them whenever I had the chance. I often cooked these foods at home, and sometimes my family and I even caught our own shrimp and crabs. Other times, I'd enjoy shellfish at restaurants. Consuming shellfish wasn't a problem. . .until it was.

At the age of 62, I discovered I had developed a shellfish allergy. I had eaten some boiled shrimp I cooked, and within just a few minutes after the meal, I broke out in red welts—mostly on my neck and chest—that were very itchy. I took some antihistamine, and the symptoms subsided. But I decided I needed to see an allergist.

Allergy Testing

I had a skin-prick allergy test years ago, but shellfish was not part of the test. The only thing I had a reaction to was dust mites. This time, the allergist wanted to do a blood test at the hospital, so I did that. In addition, the test was specific to shellfish and finned fish.

There are two basic types of shellfish: crustaceans and mollusks. Crustaceans include shrimp, lobster, and crab. Mollusks include oysters, scallops, clams, and mussels. I was tested for both types of shellfish, along with two finned fishes: flounder and cod.

I waited anxiously for my allergy test results. When I received the news, I was devastated. The findings revealed that I was allergic to shrimp, crab, and lobster. How would I live happily without ever getting to enjoy my three favorite foods on earth? According to the test, I was not allergic to oysters, scallops, flounder, or cod. At least, I thought, I could still enjoy this sector of seafood.

What Causes Shellfish Allergies?

The most likely allergen in shellfish is a protein called tropomyosin. In some individuals, the body sees tropomyosin as a dangerous invader, so the immune system attacks. In other words, the immune system overreacts, causing worrisome or even deadly symptoms.

Individuals might be allergic to crustaceans but still be able to eat mollusks because mollusks generally contain smaller amounts of tropomyosin. Some people, however, can't safely eat mollusks or crustaceans.

Back to the skin-prick test I had years ago, which showed a reaction to dust mites. Dust mites and shellfish both contain tropomyosin!

Shellfish Allergy Symptoms

You can develop a shellfish allergy at any age, even if you've been consuming shellfish for decades with no problems. The symptoms often happen within a few minutes of eating and include:

  • raised red welts that usually itch (hives)
  • tingling of the lips or tongue
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stuffy nose
  • difficulty swallowing
  • stomach pain
  • fainting or feeling faint
  • diarrhea
  • difficulty breathing
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A shellfish allergy can also trigger anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Anaphylaxis can cause fainting and make it hard or impossible to breathe. It can also cause shock—sometimes called anaphylactic shock. Obviously, this is nothing to fool around with!

Broiled sheepshead fillets taste a lot like lobster when cooked with butter and lemon juice!

Broiled sheepshead fillets taste a lot like lobster when cooked with butter and lemon juice!

The Risk of Cross-Contamination and How I Satisfy My Cravings

My doctor gave me more bad news, stating that I couldn't eat mollusks or finned fish, either, because of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination occurs when seafood I'm not allergic to is handled or cooked in the same area as seafood I am allergic to. He said the only way I could safely eat finned fish is to catch the fish myself. That way, I'll know the fish aren't contaminated with the shellfish allergen.

We went to the beach last week and caught some redfish and sharks. I cooked them for the family, and I ate some of the fillets. I was a little nervous, but I did not suffer any reactions! I would be afraid to order fish in a restaurant that also served shellfish, however, due to the chance of cross-contamination. I'd be afraid to buy fish in a seafood market for the same reason.

I've also learned that I can prepare fish fillets so they somewhat address my craving for shellfish. I add lemon or lime juice and Old Bay seasoning before frying, and I serve the fish with homemade tartar sauce. If I want more of a lobster taste, I broil the fish with lemon juice and butter. This works especially well with sheepshead, which is often called “poor man's lobster.”

Tips for Dining Out With a Shellfish Allergy

  • Get two epinephrine pens and make sure you know how to use them correctly. Always have them with you when going to a restaurant.
  • Make sure your dining partner(s) know about your food allergy and where your pens are located. If you dine frequently with a friend or companion, it's a good idea to train that person in the use of your epinephrine pen.
  • Avoid all seafood restaurants! The chance of cross-contamination is just too great. Also, some people are so allergic to tropomyosin that they can't even be where shellfish are being cooked.
  • Research restaurants before visiting. I always call and talk to the manager. I explain that I have a serious shellfish allergy and ask about the possibility of cross-contamination if the restaurant in question serves shellfish: Is shellfish cooked in the same oil as other foods? Is shellfish stored with other foods? Is shellfish cooked on the same grill or in the same pans as other foods? Is shellfish prepped on the same surfaces as other foods?
  • When you arrive at the restaurant, explain your allergy to your server and make sure they share the information with the kitchen.
  • If someone you're with is served shellfish, don't let your food touch theirs. My doctor's wife had anaphylaxis in a restaurant when his shrimp touched her steak, and they wound up in the emergency room.
I can safely eat flounder.

I can safely eat flounder.

Is There a Cure for Shellfish Allergies?

This is a question I have researched to exhaustion. Sadly, my allergist explained there is no cure or prevention for shellfish allergies, and they don't go away on their own, either. Still, I have read about a few allergists who are working on ways to prevent allergic reactions in people with shellfish allergies. I certainly hope they find a cure! I truly miss shrimp, crab, and lobster.

This Is Serious!

Please be very careful if you're allergic to shellfish! You might have a mild reaction once and a life-threatening reaction the next time. Learn to read labels carefully when buying groceries to make sure no shellfish is in the products you choose.

Taking an antihistamine beforehand won't stop anaphylaxis. Also, don't count on your epinephrine pen 100%, either. They don't always stop the reaction. Not being able to breathe is a terrible way to die. A good meal isn't worth dying for, so don't take any chances!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 15, 2021:

So sorry that you developed a shellfish allergy after eating those types of foods for so many years. Your information is good to know! Thanks for sharing this story with us.

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