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Chinese restaurant syndrome

Definition

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.

Alternative Names

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

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:

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:

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 doctor 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

Bush RK, Taylor SL. Reactions to food and drug additives. In: Adkinson NF, Bochner BS, Burks AW, Busse WW, Holgate ST, Lemanske RF, O'Hehir RE, eds. Middleton's Allergy: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 82.

Review Date:11/2/2014
Reviewed By:Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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No data available for this condition/procedure.

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