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From salmon to shrimp to scallops, many people love seafood. But unfortunately for some seafood lovers, there’s a chance of developing an allergy to shellfish and fish. Even though they both fall into the category of "seafood," fish and shellfish are biologically different, so fish will not automatically cause an allergic reaction in someone with a shellfish allergy, or vice versa.
A seafood allergy, like every allergy, is when your immune system identifies something you come in contact with as harmful. When you have an allergy, and eat fish or shellfish, your immune system releases histamine and other substances, which then cause your allergic symptoms.
Fish and shellfish allergies are uncommon, but serious: An allergy to seafood can result in anaphylaxis—a life-threatening allergic reaction.1 Many people who develop a seafood allergy do so as an adult—60% of shellfish allergies and 40% of fish allergies began in adulthood—and their reactions can be severe.2 These allergies can be caused by seafood that you’ve eaten before with no issues, but once you develop a seafood allergy, you’ll usually have this allergy for the rest of your life.3
Seafood can be a hidden ingredient in many foods, which is why it’s important to read the label or ask before buying or eating certain foods. Ingredients in packaged foods can change at any time—and without warning. It is also important to avoid seafood restaurants and going to the fish market.4
Symptoms of a seafood allergy may include:
It can take some time for symptoms to occur after eating seafood. Most occur within minutes, but some people don’t experience symptoms until up to an hour after eating. As with other food allergies, the symptoms of a seafood allergy may range from mild to severe.
Shellfish fall into two different groups: crustaceans and mollusks. Some people with shellfish allergies are allergic to both types, but some may only be allergic to one.
Reactions to crustaceans tend to be particularly severe, although many shellfish-allergic people can tolerate mollusks.
A fish allergy is not as common as other food allergies, but it is important to take it just as seriously as the others because it can cause the same severe reactions. There is a high degree of cross-reactivity between different fish species, so healthcare professionals often advise their fish-allergic patients to avoid all finned fish.
There are thousands of species of fish, but fish allergies are commonly related to:
You may be so used to avoiding fish or shellfish that you haven’t considered asking for help. So, how do you know if your symptoms are caused by a seafood allergy? If you think you or a loved one has a seafood allergy, don’t try to manage the problem on your own. A simple blood test can help your healthcare professional determine what could be causing your reactions. And knowing the true cause of your symptoms now may also help you avoid more serious issues in the future. For example, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the ER every 3 minutes. 5
Knowing if you’re allergic and what you’re allergic to can help you get relief.