Sulphites are widely used as preservative and antioxidant additives in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Topical, oral or parenteral exposure to sulphites has been reported to induce a range of adverse clinical effects in sensitive individuals, ranging from dermatitis, urticaria, flushing, hypotension, abdominal pain and diarrhoea to life-threatening anaphylactic and asthmatic reactions. Exposure to the sulphites arises mainly from the consumption of foods and drinks that contain these additives; however, exposure may also occur through the use of pharmaceutical products, as well as in occupational settings. While contact sensitivity to sulphite additives in topical medications is increasingly being recognized, skin reactions also occur after ingestion of or parenteral exposure to sulphites. Most studies report a 3–10% prevalence of sulphite sensitivity among asthmatic subjects following ingestion of these additives. However, the severity of these reactions varies, and steroid-dependent asthmatics, those with marked airway hyperresponsiveness, and children with chronic asthma, appear to be at greater risk. In addition to episodic and acute symptoms, sulphites may also contribute to chronic skin and respiratory symptoms. To date, the mechanisms underlying sulphite sensitivity remain unclear, although a number of potential mechanisms have been proposed. Physicians should be aware of the range of clinical manifestations of sulphite sensitivity, as well as the potential sources of exposure. Minor modifications to diet or behaviour lead to excellent clinical outcomes for sulphite-sensitive individuals.
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