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What are Salicylates?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Salicylates are compounds found in many fruits and vegetables. They are chemically related to the active ingredient in aspirin, and they can be used in the treatment of a number of medical conditions. People normally consume trace amounts of these compounds with their food, and in some cases people may develop salicylate allergies or intolerance, in which they react to these compounds when they are exposed to them.

These compounds are named for the Salix or willow genus of trees, a popular source for salicylates. Historically, willow bark was used in teas and tinctures for people suffering from headaches, joint pain, and muscle aches. They are also present in many fruits, especially dried fruits, along with nuts, wine, beer, and vegetables. Salicylates have natural bacterial and fungicidal properties, which explains their ubiquity in plants, because they offer some protections to the plants they are found in. They also have anti-inflammatory actions, which makes them of interest to humans.

Some salicylates are employed in the treatment of skin conditions like acne and warts. Creams and other preparations can be rubbed directly onto the skin to treat skin problems. These compounds can also be taken internally for joint pain and inflammation, or applied topically to joints and absorbed through the skin to provide some relief. Unlike aspirin, salicylates do not have a thinning effect on the blood, and they also do not confer cardiovascular benefits, which is something important to be aware of.

People who consume too many salicylates can develop salicylism, a form of food poisoning. Individuals who are sensitive to salicylates can experience issues like skin outbreaks, difficulty breathing, nausea, and vomiting as a result of exposure to these compounds. A doctor may be able to diagnose salicylate sensitivity by having a person take incrementally larger amounts of salicylate and see if he displays symptoms, and if a patient does not have demonstrated sensitivities, it may be necessary for him or her to make dietary adjustments to avoid foods which are high in salicylates.

Some examples of foods which can contain high levels of salicylates include: nightshade vegetables, prunes, cherries, cheeses, ice cream, peppermints, pistachios, coffee, almonds, broad beans, spinach, grapes, and many herbs. A doctor can provide patients with sensitivities with a complete list, and discuss which foods may need to be avoided, and which foods can simply be eaten in moderation. It is also important to avoid skin creams and other beauty products which contain salicylates; these compounds are often added to reduce puffiness and swelling in the skin.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon340434 — On Jul 03, 2013

Many people do not know this but if you are suffering from Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue, it is highly advised to avoid all Salicylates. For more info, refer to the book titled "What Your Doctor May NOT Tell You About Fibromyalgia Fatigue" by Dr. R. Paul St. Amand, MD

By anon288308 — On Aug 29, 2012

Most doctors don't even know about this issue. You need to see a GI, not an allergist normally. My daughter saw an allergist who couldn't do anything and reversed us to the GI where we were diagnosed. But they don't know how to treat it because most doctors don't know much about it.

By anon74835 — On Apr 04, 2010

for a list of salicylate content of foods and other good information about sensitivities look at Plant Poisons and other Rotten Stuff. It saved my life. Also Sue Dengate has written extensively on this you can google her. Invaluable.

By anon40579 — On Aug 09, 2009

What kind of doctor do I need to see to diagnose this? The allergy doctor didn't know much about salicylate sensitivity.

By mighkell — On Jul 29, 2009

where could i find a complete list of food, tea and cleaning products that are salicylate free? thanks.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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