What Is Salicylate Sensitivity?

Laura Metz

Salicylate sensitivity, also known as salicylate intolerance, is a negative reaction to normal levels of salicylate characterized by physical, mental, or behavioral symptoms. This chemical occurs naturally in many fruits, vegetables, and other foods, as well as in many medicines, perfumes, and preservatives. The condition is diagnosed through an elimination diet, and symptoms are managed by reducing salicylates in the diet or slowly desensitizing the body.

Most jams are high in salicylates.
Most jams are high in salicylates.

Fruits and vegetables are particularly high in salicylates because they appear in plants as natural preservatives. Apricots, grapes, oranges, and strawberries have large amounts of the chemical. Elevated salicylate levels are also seen in honey, various herbs, most jams and jellies, and some seeds. In fact, very few foods do not contain any salicylates.

Aspirin is dangerous to people with salicylate sensitivity.
Aspirin is dangerous to people with salicylate sensitivity.

Many non-food sources contain salicylates as well. Medicines, perfumes, ointments, air fresheners, and fabric softeners often use synthetic salicylates as a preservative. Except for food sources, the most common source of the chemical is aspirin. To a person with severe salicylate sensitivity, aspirin is a very dangerous drug.

Symptoms of salicylate sensitivity vary greatly and include physical, mental, and behavioral issues. The most common physical symptoms are hives or other rashes, stomach pain, asthma, and other breathing difficulties. Salicylates first stimulate the central nervous system and then depress it. These changes can lead to hyperactivity, memory loss, poor concentration, depression, and irritability.

The only way to diagnose salicylate sensitivity is an elimination diet. Salicylates build up within the body and can take some time for the body to process. The patient must drastically reduce salicylate intake for approximately four weeks while the body eliminates them. Salicylates should then be carefully returned to the diet while the patient is monitored. A doctor’s supervision is critical because a patient can die of anaphylactic shock if the salicylates are reintroduced too rapidly.

Treatment requires a life-long diet with reduced salicylate levels and desensitization. Since salicylates are so common, it is neither practical nor beneficial to completely eradicate them. Some patients are able to desensitize their bodies by slowly adding salicylates into their diets, making sure they never take enough to trigger their symptoms.

Salicylate sensitivity is a food intolerance and not an allergy. Certain levels can be handled without any trouble, unlike allergies, in which any exposure level causes some symptoms. An allergy test cannot diagnose the sensitivity. It is also different from salicylism, or salicylate overdose, which can happen to anyone despite sensitivity.

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