Woman with stuffy nose experiencing tuna allergy symptoms

Tuna allergy symptoms explained

Written on November 28, 2022 by Lori Mulligan, MPH. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Tuna is often cited for its health benefits, such as being high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. However, you might be surprised to learn that tuna is an allergenic fish that can trigger very serious reactions.

Food allergies affect as many as 32 million Americans, including 26 million adults and 5.6 million children [1]. It is a somewhat less common form of food allergy, affecting women more than men and adults more than children. The most common kinds of finned fish causing an allergic reaction are salmon, tuna, and halibut.

Surprising foods that contain fish

Fish can be found in many surprising foods, such as [2]:

  • Barbecue sauce
  • Bouillabaisse
  • Caesar salad and Caesar dressing
  • Caponata, a Sicilian eggplant relish
  • Imitation or artificial fish or shellfish (e.g., surimi, also known as “sea legs” or “sea sticks”)
  • Worcestershire sauce

That’s why it’s so important to read the labels on foods that you buy. Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, the FDA is responsible for ensuring that the nation's seafood supply, both domestic and imported, is safe, sanitary, wholesome, and honestly labeled [3].

Fish vs. shellfish allergies

Fish allergies are primarily caused by parvalbumins, a type of calcium-binding protein. Other allergens that can cause fish allergy include fish gelatin and the enzymes enolase and aldolase.

The major allergens in shellfish allergy are muscle proteins called tropomyosins. Other allergens in shellfish include myosin light chain (a muscle protein), arginine kinase (an enzyme), and hemocyanin (a protein in mollusks that carries oxygen).


As mentioned above, allergic reactions to fish are mainly caused by a specific kind of protein called parvalbumin. The white muscle tissue of fish is especially high in parvalbumins — much higher than in red muscle tissues. Tuna has much higher red muscle tissues. This explains why, among allergenic fish, tuna is often better tolerated by people who are allergic to fish.

Parvalbumins are relatively heat-stable, meaning they are not destroyed through cooking or grilling. Therefore, both raw and cooked fish can trigger allergy symptoms.

While an allergic reaction is usually triggered when fish is eaten, very sensitive people develop allergy symptoms just by breathing in the steam from cooked fish. An allergy can also be caused by inhaling dust containing dried fish particles or through skin contact with fish.

But a fish allergy does not necessarily mean that seafood, such as shellfish like mussels or crustaceans like shrimp, will also provoke an allergic reaction [4].


As with other food allergies, tuna allergy symptoms may range from mild to severe. They include [5]:

  • Hives or a skin rash
  • Nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting, and/or diarrhea
  • Stuffy or runny nose and/or sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Asthma
  • Anaphylaxis (less common), a potentially life-threatening reaction that impairs breathing and can cause the body to go into shock

Tuna allergies vs. food poisoning

It is important to recognize the difference between tuna allergy and food poisoning symptoms. Some conditions caused by toxins or parasites in seafood can resemble allergic reactions to seafood.

For example, scombroid fish poisoning, or histamine fish poisoning, is a syndrome resembling an allergic reaction that occurs after eating tuna contaminated with high levels of histamine.

When these types of fish are not properly refrigerated, bacteria begin to break down the flesh of the fish, and histamines are formed. Histamines are heat-resistant; therefore, illness can occur even with fish that is properly canned or cooked [6].

Tuna allergy treatment

There is no cure for tuna allergies; however, there are some things you can do to manage and treat the allergy [7]:

  • Avoid fish and fish products
  • Read food labels carefully
  • Treat symptoms of anaphylaxis with epinephrine (adrenaline)
  • Be careful in restaurant food preparation

Everlywell products offer insight into food allergies

Everlywell is pleased to offer a food allergy test. This at-home lab test measures your body’s immunoglobulin E (IgE) reactivity to common food allergens, including tuna. If your results indicate increased reactivity that may be associated with a food allergy, you will receive a call from a nurse to help with next steps.


Hopefully, you have come away with a better understanding of what tuna allergies are and how to recognize the symptoms so you can seek professional help if you suspect you are allergic.

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  1. Food Allergy Basics. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team. Accessed November 28, 2022. URL
  2. Living with Fish Allergies: Avoiding Fish. Food Allergy Research and Education. Accessed on November 28, 2022. URL
  3. Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). Food and Drug Administration. Accessed November 22, 2022. URL
  4. Zuberbier, T. Fish allergy. European Centre for Allergy Research Foundation. Updated July 2016. Accessed on November 22, 2022. URL
  5. Fish. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Updated March 21, 2019. Accessed November 22, 2022. URL
  6. Allergic and Toxic Reactions to Seafood. Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. Accessed November 22, 2022. URL
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