Can you get allergies from eating durian?

Khoo Bee Khim

CNA – It’s that time of the year again when you can’t walk past the neighbourhood fruit stalls without seeing styrofoam boxes filled with seductively plump, creamy, yellow, durian flesh.

But what if the very treat you’ve been looking forward to all year is causing your body to reject it in the most worrying fashion?

In the case of my colleague, who had no prior health issue eating durian, the few bites she had recently brought on a potentially life-threatening swelling of the throat and lips.

Although there aren’t many such allergy cases in Singapore (thank goodness), “there are a few cases of suspected durian allergies during the durian season,” said Dr Benjamin Loh, a resident doctor at DTAP Clinic Bencoolen.

“Based on research literature, there is only one study that looked into durian allergies,” he said, underscoring the rarity of such cases.

The bad news is, it is possible to develop an allergy to durian later in life, said Dr Loh. An allergic reaction is when your body mistakes something innocuous (in this case, durian) as harmful and over-reacts to fend it off, resulting in classic symptoms such as body rashes, a runny nose, diarrhoea, vomiting, shortness of breath… you get the idea.

You might think the allergy to durian is a recent development but it has actually been brewing for a while. Here’s the thing: Your body might have reacted that way to durian in the past but if it was a very mild reaction, you might not have registered it. But over time and with subsequent exposure to the same allergen, the body becomes sensitised and reacts even when exposed to a tiny amount of it, said Dr Loh.

What is it in durian that is likely to cause an allergy? Dietitian and founder of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants, Jaclyn Reutens, said that it is possibly the sulphur content in durian “because there are individuals who are allergic to sulphur”.

“Other than sulphur compounds, I do not see any other component in durians that could possibly trigger any reactions,” she said.

Durian enthusiasts may try every trick in the book to overcome their allergy. Some may try to counter the reaction with more durian in the hopes of desensitising their bodies to the allergen. Others may take antihistamines before eating durian. Do these methods work? Should you try them?

It’s best not to, said Dr Loh. For one, there’s no telling how severe your allergic reaction will be when exposed to even the tiniest bit of durian.

For the same reason, it’s not prudent to take a pre-emptive antihistamine, thinking that will stop your durian allergies from acting up. “If a person has a history of severe allergic reaction to durian, it is not advisable. There is no way to predict how the next allergic reaction will turn out, especially when there’s a potential of a life-threatening allergic reaction,” said Dr Loh.