Over 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Certain foods are more likely to cause allergic reactions than others. Arugula, a green leafy vegetable with a spicy or peppery flavor, which is also called rugola, rucola, roquette or garden rocket, can cause allergic reactions in some people that affect mostly the lips, tongue and throat.
Food allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to certain proteins. The first time you eat arugula, you may have no reaction. But unbeknown to you, your body has formed Immunoglobulin E, or IgE, antibodies to arugula. The next time you eat it, the IgE antibodies release chemicals, such as histamine, which attempt to eliminate or attack the offending substance. These chemicals cause the symptoms associated with allergies.
Symptoms of an allergy to arugula occur after you eat the greens. Common symptoms include tongue swelling and irritation of the lips and throat. Facial swelling known as angioedema may also occur. Symptoms normally occur within a few minutes after ingesting an allergen but may not appear for several hours.
Complications of an allergic reaction to arugula include swelling in the throat that could impede air flow to the lungs. Because the reaction to arugula mostly occurs in and around the mouth and lips, watch for signs of difficulty breathing, rapid breathing, rapid pulse, gasping for air or collapse. If the throat swells completely shut, death can occur within a few minutes. People with severe allergies to arugula should carry injectable epinephrine, which reduces swelling, in case of inadvertent ingestion of arugula. Anaphylaxis, collapse of the circulatory system accompanied by shock and a drop in blood pressure, can occur in rare cases.
The best way to prevent an allergy attack from arugula is complete avoidance. Reactions may get worse each time you’re exposed to arugula or other allergenic substances, so having a mild reaction one time does not mean you’ll have a mild reaction the next time you’re exposed. If you have allergies, approach new foods cautiously, eating only a little the first time you’re exposed to it to check for possible reactions. Many restaurant salads contain a mixture of greens, but don't take the restaurant's word for it that your salad contains no arugula if you're allergic. Search carefully for yourself or stick to easily identifiable greens. If you're highly allergic, even a small bit of arugula that clings to a knife used to cut it and other types of lettuce could cause a reaction.