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Chinese restaurant syndrome

Hot dog headache; Glutamate-induced asthma; MSG (monosodium glutamate) syndrome

 

Chinese restaurant syndrome is a set of symptoms that some people have after eating Chinese food. A food additive called monosodium glutamate (MSG) has been blamed for the condition. However, this has not been proven to be the cause.

Causes

 

Reports of serious reactions to Chinese food first appeared in 1968. At that time, MSG was thought to be the cause of these symptoms. There have been many studies since then that have failed to show a connection between MSG and the symptoms some people describe.

For this reason, MSG continues to be used in some meals. However, it is possible that some people are particularly sensitive to food additives. MSG is chemically similar to one of the brain's most important chemicals, glutamate.

 

Symptoms

 

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Flushing
  • Headache
  • Numbness or burning in or around the mouth
  • Sense of facial pressure or swelling
  • Sweating

 

Exams and Tests

 

Chinese restaurant syndrome is most often diagnosed based on the symptoms. The health care provider may ask the following questions as well:

  • Have you eaten Chinese food within the past 2 hours?
  • Have you eaten any other food that may contain monosodium glutamate within the past 2 hours?

The following signs may also be used to aid in diagnosis:

  • Abnormal heart rhythm observed on an electrocardiogram
  • Decreased air entry into the lungs
  • Rapid heart rate

 

Treatment

 

Treatment depends on the symptoms. Most mild symptoms, such as headache or flushing, need no treatment.

Life-threatening symptoms require immediate medical attention. They may be similar to other severe allergic reactions and include:

  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the throat

 

Outlook (Prognosis)

 

Most people recover from mild cases of Chinese restaurant syndrome without treatment and have no lasting problems.

People who have had life-threatening reactions need to be extra careful about what they eat. They should also always carry medicines prescribed by their provider for emergency treatment.

 

When to Contact a Medical Professional

 

Get emergency medical help right away if you have the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling of the lips or throat

 

 

References

Aronson JK. Monosodium glutamate. In: Aronson JK, ed. Meyler's Side Effects of Drugs. 16th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:1103-1104.

Bush RK, Taylor SL. Reactions to food and drug additives. In: Adkinson NF, Bochner BS, Burks AW, et al, eds. Middleton's Allergy: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 82.

 
  • Allergic reactions

    Allergic reactions - illustration

    Allergic reaction can be provoked by skin contact with poison plants, chemicals and animal scratches, as well as by insect stings. Ingesting or inhaling substances like pollen, animal dander, molds and mildew, dust, nuts and shellfish, may also cause allergic reaction. Medications such as penicillin and other antibiotics are also to be taken with care, to assure an allergic reflex is not triggered.

    Allergic reactions

    illustration

    • Allergic reactions

      Allergic reactions - illustration

      Allergic reaction can be provoked by skin contact with poison plants, chemicals and animal scratches, as well as by insect stings. Ingesting or inhaling substances like pollen, animal dander, molds and mildew, dust, nuts and shellfish, may also cause allergic reaction. Medications such as penicillin and other antibiotics are also to be taken with care, to assure an allergic reflex is not triggered.

      Allergic reactions

      illustration

    A Closer Look

     

      Talking to your MD

       

        Self Care

         

          Tests for Chinese restaurant syndrome

           

             

            Review Date: 12/10/2016

            Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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