People with a coconut allergy may develop a reaction after ingesting or using coconut or coconut-based foods, cosmetics, and other products. Symptoms range from mild to severe, including a skin rash, swelling, vomiting, and a rapid heart rate.

Coconut is a nutrient-rich food high in fiber, calories, and minerals, including zinc, iron, manganese, selenium, potassium, and copper.

Generally, people use coconut flesh, oil, and liquid in cooking and frying. Some soaps, cosmetics, and skin care products also contain coconut.

A person may feel some discomforting symptoms after taking coconut orally or topically. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies coconut as a tree nut for labeling purposes, it is a fruit of the coconut palm tree.

Many people with tree nut allergies may be able to tolerate coconut well. However, a person with a tree nut allergy should discuss it with a doctor before taking coconut.

This article examines the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of coconut allergies.

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A person may have a coconut allergy if they experience an allergic reaction soon after consuming coconut or using coconut-based products.

When a person has a coconut allergy, as with other food allergies, the immune system — the body’s primary defense against infection — misinterprets the harmless proteins found in coconut as a threat.

In response to the threat, the body’s immune system attacks the allergen by producing specific IgE antibodies that bind to the proteins in the coconut. This binding can trigger the immune defenses, causing reaction symptoms.

According to a 2021 study, coconut allergy is rare, but it is the most common food allergen in commercially available skin care products, with 75% of shampoos and body soaps containing coconut.

The authors also note that coconut is a typical natural moisturizer for babies, particularly children with atopic dermatitis at high risk for food allergy.

It is a growing concern among parents and caregivers of children with food allergies. This may be due to the FDA-required labeling of packaged foods and increasing demand for an alternative nutritional drink for children with cow milk allergies.

Research from 2017 identified the following coconut allergens:

  • Coc n2, a 7S globulin
  • Coc n4, an 11S globulin

Symptoms of coconut allergy can range from mild to severe and may include the following:

The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) notes that a person may experience any of these symptoms after coming into contact with a small amount of coconut.

If anyone is experiencing any worsening symptoms, including anaphylaxis, they should contact the doctor or visit the closest hospital right away. Without prompt treatment, anaphylaxis can be fatal.

Anaphylaxis: Symptoms and what to do

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

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Allergic contact dermatitis may occur after someone applies a coconut-derived product to the skin. Symptoms can include itchy blisters or rashes 24–96 hours after exposure. A person may initially tolerate a contact allergen. However, with repeated exposures over time — especially in people with other allergic conditions such as eczema — contact dermatitis to a previously tolerated allergen may develop.

Though a person may not notice any change in their skin immediately after using products containing coconut, a discolored and itchy rash develops on their hands the next day. It can take several days for coconut-induced contact dermatitis to resolve independently.

People who use coconut topically may have a higher risk of coconut-induced contact dermatitis. Due to the high prevalence of coconut in different skin- and hair-care products, experts recommend that a person speaks with a doctor before applying coconut products topically.

Foods belonging to the same biological class or family usually have similar proteins. If a person is allergic to a protein from a particular food, they can most likely react when they eat other foods containing a similar protein.

According to the charity Anaphylaxis UK, coconut is a member of the palm family and is not closely related to tree nuts. Examples of tree nuts include almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, and pistachios.

This indicates that people with a tree nut allergy can tolerate coconut well. A person with a coconut allergy may also safely consume tree nuts.

However, on rare occasions, a person can experience cross-reactivity with coconut and other fruits containing similar protein content.

Research indicates that two people allergic to walnuts reacted to coconuts due to a cross-reacting protein. Another person with coconut allergy developed oral allergy symptoms after consuming tree nuts. The authors identified a cross-reacting protein found in coconut and hazelnut as the cause.

Evidence from this report suggests that cross-reactivity exists between coconut and walnut and between coconut and hazelnut.

If a person has concerns about developing cross-reactivity, they should speak with a doctor.

The AAAAI notes that a proper diagnosis is the first step to managing the condition. To diagnose coconut allergy, the doctor can recommend the following exams. This includes:

  • Medical history: The doctor will take a person’s medical history to understand a person’s coconut allergy symptoms and causes.
  • Physical exam: The doctor can conduct a physical examination of a person’s eyes, ears, nose, throat, chest, and skin. They may also order a lung function test or X-ray to examine how a person breathes.

A doctor can conduct a skin, patch, or blood test to accurately diagnose a person’s coconut allergy symptoms.

  • Skin prick test: The doctor will place a tiny drop of the allergen on the skin and gently prick the skin with a needle or sharp plastic device through the allergen droplet. A person with an immediate-type allergy to coconut will experience discoloration, itching, and swelling at the prick site within 15 minutes.
  • Patch test: This test can help the doctor determine which specific coconut allergen is causing contact dermatitis. The doctor will place a small amount of allergen on a person’s skin, cover it with a bandage, and examine for any skin reaction within 48–96 hours. A person will have a local skin rash if they are allergic.
  • Blood test: If a person cannot tolerate skin tests, the doctor can take their blood sample and measure the number of antibodies against coconut allergens in their blood.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), if a person receives an immediate-type IgE-mediated coconut allergy diagnosis, the doctor will recommend avoiding using and taking coconut or coconut-based products. This is the best treatment plan.

There is presently no cure for coconut allergy. There are also no medications to avoid reactions.

However, a doctor may recommend antihistamines to help reduce any worsening symptoms.

They may also recommend some habits to adopt, including:

  • reading food labels to avoid eating foods containing coconut
  • asking about ingredients when eating foods prepared by families, friends, or restaurants
  • completing an anaphylaxis action plan and carrying auto-injectable epinephrine such as EpiPen at all times

Some people may find that changing their diet improves their coconut allergy symptoms. This may involve avoiding coconut-containing foods, such as:

  • coconut
  • coconut aminos
  • coconut cream
  • coconut extract
  • coconut flour
  • coconut milk
  • coconut milk powder
  • coconut sugar
  • coconut oil
  • coconut water
  • coconut powder
  • shredded coconut
  • grated coconut

People with coconut allergies need to be vigilant about reading labels to ensure that nothing they eat contains coconut or could have become contaminated with coconut during production.

Coconut allergy is rare. Symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Avoiding foods and products comprising coconut is the best way to prevent allergic reactions.

However, as coconut is a staple in many diets and products, people must be careful to avoid accidental exposure.