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a person pouring a cup of coffee

Can Drinking Coffee Lead to Allergy Symptoms?

By Mallory Logsdon, PA-C Published on Jul 10, 2024
Table of Contents
    Key Takeaways
    • Coffee allergies, although rare, can lead to severe allergic reactions.
    • Symptoms of coffee intolerance causing discomfort, but not a life-threatening reaction.
    • Avoid coffee and coffee-derived products if you have a true coffee allergy.

    Coffee is popular worldwide and is enjoyed in many cultures. In fact, over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily globally [*]. Despite coffee being a staple, unfortunately, people can rarely be allergic to it. Coffee allergy is very rare—but for those affected, it can limit their ability to enjoy this energy-boosting beverage.

    This article discusses allergies due to coffee intake, the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, symptoms to note, and what to do.

    Can Drinking Coffee Lead to an Allergic Reaction?

    While the vast majority of people can safely consume coffee without any adverse effects, a small percentage of individuals may experience a true allergic reaction to coffee, which is particularly rare compared with allergies to other foods, such as wheat and eggs.

    A case report describes a 27-year-old woman who experienced a severe allergic reaction (called anaphylaxis) due to coffee intake. A skin prick test was done, which indicated that the anaphylaxis was an IgE-mediated hypersensitivity reaction [*].

    The reason why some people develop an allergic reaction to coffee is not entirely clear. When a person with a caffeine allergy consumes coffee or other caffeinated products, their immune system mistakenly identifies the caffeine as a harmful substance and produces antibodies to attack it.

    This triggers the release of histamine and other chemicals, leading to the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

    Coffee Allergy vs. Coffee Intolerance

    Coffee allergy and coffee intolerance are two distinct conditions that can cause similar symptoms, but they differ in their underlying causes and severity.

    Whereas a coffee allergy is a real immune response to one or more components of coffee, such as caffeine—coffee intolerance (also known as sensitivity) is a heightened response that does not involve the immune system.

    Symptoms of a coffee allergy can range from mild to severe, and in rare cases, anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction) can happen.

    Coffee intolerance symptoms, on the other hand, are not life-threatening, although they can be quite uncomfortable. They occur even with smaller doses of caffeine.

    What are the Symptoms of Coffee Allergy?

    The symptoms of a coffee allergy can vary widely depending on the individual's sensitivity and the severity of the allergic reaction.

    Common symptoms of a coffee allergy may include:

    • Skin symptoms: hives, itching, swelling
    • Respiratory symptoms: nasal congestion, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath
    • Gastrointestinal symptoms: nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, or diarrhea
    • Oral symptoms: itching or swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
    • Neurological symptoms: headache, dizziness, loss of consciousness

    It's important to note that anaphylaxis can occur rapidly and requires immediate medical attention. Watch out for difficulty breathing, a rapid or weak pulse, and a drop in blood pressure.

    What are the Symptoms of Coffee Intolerance?

    Coffee intolerance, unlike an allergy that involves the immune system, typically manifests as digestive or systemic symptoms due to difficulty in processing or metabolizing components of coffee.

    Symptoms of coffee intolerance may include:

    • Digestive symptoms: bloating, gas, stomach cramps, diarrhea, or acid reflux
    • Neurological and psychological symptoms: Jitteriness, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, mood swings, or difficulty concentrating
    • Cardiovascular symptoms: palpitations or rapid heartbeat
    • Other symptoms: headaches, flushing, or sweating

    Coffee intolerance varies in severity and can affect people differently. Interestingly, genetics may play a role. Research shows that the CYP1A2 enzyme, which is responsible for caffeine metabolism, may impact how quickly or slowly individuals process caffeine [*].

    If you suspect coffee intolerance based on these symptoms, try reducing or eliminating coffee and observe if there are any changes in your symptoms.

    What Foods or Drinks Should I Avoid if I’m Allergic to Coffee?

    If you’re allergic to coffee, it's important to avoid not only coffee itself but also any food or drink that contains coffee or coffee-derived ingredients.

    Here are some common foods and drinks to avoid if have a coffee allergy:

    • Coffee beverages: This includes brewed coffee, espresso, cappuccino, latte, mocha, and any other coffee-based drinks.
    • Decaffeinated coffee: Even decaffeinated coffee contains coffee proteins that can trigger an allergic reaction.
    • Coffee-flavored foods: Such as coffee-flavored ice cream, cakes, cookies, candies, or chocolates.
    • Coffee-infused alcoholic beverages: Some cocktails or liqueurs may contain coffee extracts or flavors.
    • Energy drinks: Many energy drinks contain caffeine and may also have coffee-related ingredients.
    • Certain medications or supplements: Some medications, especially weight loss pills or pain relievers, may contain caffeine or coffee derivatives as active ingredients.

    Be sure to read ingredient labels carefully, as coffee or coffee-derived components can be present in unexpected products.

    Are There Alternatives to Coffee for People with Allergies?

    Yes, there are several alternatives to coffee for people with allergies or sensitivities to coffee or its components. The key is to experiment with different caffeine-free alternatives to find what works best.

    Here are some popular alternatives:

    • Herbal teas: Chamomile, peppermint, ginger, or rooibos tea, are caffeine-free and generally do not contain coffee-related allergens.
    • Fruit or vegetable juices: Natural fruit juices or vegetable juices can provide a refreshing alternative to coffee, especially in the morning.
    • Golden milk: This warm beverage is made from turmeric and other spices blended with milk (dairy or non-dairy).
    • Smoothies: Blend fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and other ingredients to make a nutritious and caffeine-free beverage option.
    • Lemon water: This provides hydration and vitamin C without caffeine. Simply squeeze one-half of a lemon into a glass of water or use thin slices (for a milder flavor).

    These alternatives not only provide variety but also cater to different preferences. You may also work with a dietician who can recommend beverages that align with your nutritional needs.

    When to See a Doctor for Coffee Allergy

    Seek medical attention immediately if you experience symptoms such as skin reactions, respiratory issues, gastrointestinal discomfort, or other unusual reactions shortly after consuming coffee or coffee-containing products.

    A doctor can perform allergy testing to confirm the diagnosis and provide guidance on managing your allergy. For long-term management of a coffee allergy, consulting with an allergist or immunologist can help you develop a plan to manage potential exposures.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Here are some other questions people might have about coffee allergies:

    Can you develop a coffee allergy over time?

    It is possible to develop a coffee allergy later in life, even if you have been consuming coffee without issue for years. Allergies can develop at any stage of life due to changes in the immune system's response to specific allergens.

    Is decaffeinated coffee safer for people with coffee allergies?

    Decaffeinated coffee is not necessarily safer for people with coffee allergies. Even though decaffeinated coffee has reduced caffeine content, it still contains the proteins from the coffee bean that can trigger allergic reactions in susceptible individuals.

    Therefore, those with coffee allergies should avoid both regular and decaffeinated coffee to prevent allergic reactions.

    Are there specific types of coffee that are less likely to cause allergies?

    Generally, the roast level of coffee does not significantly affect its allergenic potential. However, some people find that certain coffee beans or blends (e.g., single-origin vs. blends) may cause fewer allergy symptoms.

    Important note: If you have a known coffee allergy, it's best to avoid coffee entirely rather than try different types. For those with coffee intolerance, experimenting with different types and preparation methods might help find a more tolerable option.

    The Bottom Line

    The best way to prevent a coffee allergy and intolerance is to stay away from coffee and other drinks and foods that might contain caffeine. If you do experience symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

    References:

    1. Allen, L. (n.d.). 2024 Coffee Statistics: Consumption, Preferences, & Spending. https://www.driveresearch.com/market-research-company-blog/coffee-survey/
    2. Sugiyama, K., Cho, T., Tatewaki, M., Onishi, S., Yokoyama, T., Yoshida, N., Fujimatsu, T., Hirata, H., Fukuda, T., & Fukushima, Y. (2015). Anaphylaxis due to caffeine. Asia Pacific Allergy, 5(1), 55-56. https://doi.org/10.5415/apallergy.2015.5.1.55
    3. Mullins, V. A., Bresette, W., Johnstone, L., Hallmark, B., & Chilton, F. H. (2020). Genomics in Personalized Nutrition: Can You “Eat for Your Genes”? Nutrients, 12(10), 3118. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12103118
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