What is sulfur allergy? Are you allergic to Sulfa, Sulfite, Sulfate, or Sulfur? Which one causes an allergy? There’s quite a bit of confusion about the difference between these compounds because their names sound similar.
Many people think if they are allergic to sulfa drugs or sulfites and thus it is necessary for them to avoid dietary supplements containing sulfates or sulfur such as glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin sulfate, and organic sulfur.
In this article, I am going to explain the difference between these four substances and hopefully it will clear up some of the confusion.
Sulfa Drugs (Sulfonamides)
Sulfa drugs were the first antibiotics to treat and prevent bacterial infections in humans.
Sulfa drugs contain a chemical group called sulfonamide, which is not usually allergenic by itself, but when a sulfonamide molecule is metabolized in the body, it is capable of binding to proteins, thus forming a larger molecule that can serve as an allergen.
Sulfa drugs (sulfonamide) do contain sulfur, but the allergic reaction is not sulfur per se, rather it is the byproduct of sulfonamide metabolism.
Symptoms of sulfa allergy include:
- Swelling of the face, mouth, tongue, and throat
- Wheezing or difficulty breathing
- Drop in blood pressure
- Asthma attack in people with asthma
- Anaphylaxis (a severe, life-threatening reaction that requires immediate medical attention)
If you have signs of an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs, get emergency help immediately.
Sulfites (Sulfur Dioxide)
Sulfites refer to a group of chemicals that include sulfur dioxide and sulfite salts. Sulfites are naturally occurring sulfur molecules in the fermentation process, such as red wines.
Sulfites are also chemicals used as preservatives to prevent browning and discoloration in foods and beverages during preparation, storage, and distribution. They aren’t used on most fresh foods, but they’re still used in some cooked and processed foods.
Sulfites don’t cause problems for the vast majority of people, but about one in every hundred people is allergic to them. People with asthma have 5% to 10% chance of also being allergic to sulfites. The combination of asthma and sulfites can be life-threatening because it can lead to anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death.
Sulfites are not to be confused with sulfa drugs. They are entirely different chemicals and have unrelated mechanisms of reaction.
A person allergic to sulfites is no more likely to be allergic to sulfa drugs than any other individual and vice versa.
Symptoms of sulfite allergy include:
- Hives and itchiness
- Upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting
- Trouble swallowing
- Drop in blood pressure
- Trouble breathing
If you have signs of an allergic reaction to sulfites, get emergency help immediately.
Sulfates are naturally occurring salt of sulfuric acid. They are found in natural food diet and supplements including vitamin B, biotin, thiamin, glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate. They are also found in our body, for example, as a component of hormone such as insulin. The main function of sulfate is to stabilize protein structures.
Sulfates are very important molecules for human health and do not cause allergic or sensitivity reactions.
Sulfates are also used in a variety of common products, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which is a strong detergent used for removing oils and grease and is found in many household cleaning products, face and body washes and shampoos.
Many people choose to avoid “sulfates” because they can be overly drying to some hair types and strip the cuticle of its natural oils and cause scalp irritation.
Sulfates are different from sulfites and sulfa drugs, and people who are sensitive to sulfites or sulfa drugs should not be sensitive to sulfates. Sulfate allergy does not exist, but it can act as a chemical irritant.
Elemental Yellow Sulfur
Sulfur actually exists in two forms in nature. One is Yellow Sulfur and the other one is Organic Sulfur.
Sulfur (also known as sulphur) is a yellow, tasteless, odorless, non-metallic element. In nature it occurs as a pure element in the form of a yellow crystalline solid or as sulfide and sulfate minerals. Although sulfur is infamous for its rotten egg smell, the odor is actually characteristic of hydrogen sulfide.
Elemental sulfur is not toxic, but many simple sulfur derivatives are, such as sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.
When sulfur reacts with oxygen, it forms sulfur oxide. This is a very dangerous substance that can cause damage to the eyes, nose and lungs. It can cause coughing, difficultly breathing and damage to the heart and kidney when inhaled. Exposure to sulfur oxide in high concentration can even result in burns on the skin. Sulfur oxide is also flammable, which when ignited, can trigger an explosion.
Needless to say, these sulfur derivatives are extremely dangerous and poisonous to the body and should not be consumed.
Organic sulfur is found in the cells of all living organisms and plays a critical role in the oxygenation and detoxification of all cells. It is one of the basic building blocks used throughout the body to make a variety of biomolecules such as enzymes, collagen, amino acids, hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, and much more.
Organic sulfur is mainly found in the body as amino acids (such as methionine and cysteine). It is also used in a variety of compounds in the body that help to chelate and remove heavy metals from the body.
When people say that they are allergic to sulfur they mean sulfites or sulfa drugs (sulfonamides), not sulfur or sulfates. The allergy-causing compounds in sulfites and sulfa drugs bear no resemblance structurally or functionally to sulfur and sulfates.
Strictly speaking, the concept of a “sulfur allergy” is really a misconception. Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral in the body. Nearly half of all sulfur is concentrated in muscle tissues, skin and bones.
So it’s virtually impossible to be allergic to sulfur because it has no protein component and you are not able to survive without it. Your body should not experience the same type of allergic reaction as you do when taking sulfa drugs and/or consuming sulfites in foods.
If you experience reactions to organic sulfur, it needs to be noted that many adverse reactions are probably due to impurities in the product, not to the organic sulfur itself. But uncomfortable reactions are common with even the purest organic sulfur. As you begin taking organic sulfur, if you experience flu-like symptoms, dizziness, or the onset of diarrhea, don’t worry, these are actually normal and natural detoxification process. These symptoms will get better over time.
I hope this article has provided you a better understanding about the difference of these four substances. Even though their names sound similar, they have dramatically different properties and effects in the human body.
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave your comments below. I will get back to you as soon as possible.
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