What Is A Silk Allergy?

  • Simmi Anand MBA Healthcare Services, Sikkim Manipal University, India

Silk allergy refers to the medical condition where the affected person suffers from adverse reactions after coming into contact with silk or silk-related products.6 

Sericulture is the process that involves the production of raw silk. Silk is a protein usually derived from silkworms, Bombyx mori. Silkworms are mostly fed with mulberry leaves. Some spiders also produce silk but are not of high enough quality for clothing. Silkworms have four development phases: ova, larva, pupa, and moth. Silkworms are caterpillars which make a cocoon during their transition phase from larva to pupa. After the transition, they break the cocoon open and come out. However, to produce silk, the cocoon should not break. For this reason, silkworms are put in hot water to kill them before they emerge from the cocoon. Filament from the cocoons is unwound to form silk yarn. The cocoon is bound together with the help of sericin.7 Silk obtained with sericin is called raw silk. It is processed to become the silk used in manufacturing clothes or for cosmetic purposes.¹

Causes of silk allergies

Silk allergy is caused due to the presence of proteins in the silk. Excrement, dander, and silk from the silkworm pupae are a known source of allergens. Silk is used not only in the textile and cosmetic industry but also as food. Silkworm pupae are a delicacy in some Asian countries such as China, Japan or Korea. 

Silkworm pupae contain two main proteins: fibroin and sericin.8 Sericin is considered the main allergen. Currently, there are 26 known allergenic proteins in silkworm pupae, whereas the larvae have one allergen - arginine kinase.1 In Asian countries, food allergies associated with silkworm pupae are very common. 

Silkworms can cause three types of allergic reactions depending on the source or developmental stage.¹,²

  • Food allergy: Allergic reactions after consuming raw, boiled, or fried silkworm pupae. Tropomyosin from silkworms causes these allergic reactions 
  • Contact allergy: Some people develop allergic reactions when they come in contact with silk-containing products
  • Respiratory allergy: Inhaling silkworm moth particles in the air can cause respiratory allergies 

Uses of silk

Silk can be used for food, textiles, medicinal, and cosmetic products.¹,²,4


Silkworms produce silk which is a popular and luxurious fabric. They are also expensive and very strong. 

Cosmetic uses

Silk is a component of several cosmetic products. There are 7 silk proteins used in cosmetics.

Hydrolysed fibroinHair and skin conditioning agents and perfumes.
Hydrolysed sericinHair and skin conditioning agents.
Hydrolysed silkHair and skin conditioning agents.
MEA hydrolysed silkHair and skin conditioning agents.
SericinHair and skin conditioning agents.
Silk extractSkin conditioning agents.
Silkworm powderSkin conditioning agents and perfumes.

Dietary uses

Let's check out the nutritional value of 100 g of silkworm pupae. Silkworm pupae have higher protein content compared to other animal-based foods. 

Energy230 kcal
Protein21.5 g
Carbohydrate6.7 g
Fat13 g
Water57.5 g
Vitamin B10.07 mg
Vitamin B22.23 mg
Vitamin B32.2 mg
Sodium140.2 mg
Calcium81 mg
Iron2.6 mg

In Korea, silkworm pupae are boiled and seasoned to be sold as snacks. In China, silkworm pupae are roasted and eaten as snacks.

Other uses 

Apart from dietary, textile, and cosmetic uses, fibroin protein from silk can also be used for:

  • Water absorbency
  • Parachutes
  • Surgical sutures
  • Artificial blood vessels
  • Tyre lining materials
  • Dried silkworm pupae are used as a medication for relieving flatulence muscular spasms and as an expectorant

Symptoms of a silk allergy

Silk allergy can be a respiratory, food, or contact allergy. A study was conducted in the Ramanagara area, India on workers handling silk processing to determine the occupational hazards of sericulture. Many workers presented with allergic symptoms after a skin prick test.5

Another study was conducted on patients from a Korean hospital who presented with allergic reactions after being exposed to silkworm pupae. They also underwent skin prick tests. The study found that reactions occurred within 30 minutes of exposure.3 

There can be different symptoms based on the silkworm's source and developmental phase.¹

  • Urticaria: Also called hives. These are rashes or patches on the body with a stinging or burning sensation. They usually get better on their own in a few days. But, if symptoms persist, consult a dermatologist 
  • Dizziness: Some people might feel dizzy after exposure to silkworms. 
  • Skin itching: Some people experience itching all over their body after coming into contact with silkworms
  • Asthma: Asthma is a respiratory allergy where the affected person has breathing difficulty. Apart from breathlessness, people can also experience coughing or a feeling of tight chest
  • Allergic rhinitis: This allergic reaction is characterised by symptoms such as sneezing, itchy nose, runny or blocked nose, runny or itchy eyes, cough, and itchy mouth. Nasal sprays and antihistamines can help treat rhinitis. Contact a pharmacist for advice
  • Allergic conjunctivitis: Also called red or pink eye. It affects both eyes, causing them to turn red with an itchy sensation. Other symptoms are watery eyes, pus, and a burning sensation. Wiping the eyes with boiled water after it cools down can relieve the symptoms
  • Anaphylaxis: This life-threatening allergic reaction is characterised by swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty in breathing and swallowing, wheezing, coughing, dizziness, or rashes. If you or anyone is having anaphylactic shock, call an ambulance 

Diagnosis of a silk allergy

Diagnosis for allergy is done by a skin prick test. The nurse will mark some letters on the forearm that signify different allergens (substances that cause allergy). Then a solution containing allergens will be dropped on their respective places. After that, the nurse will scratch each drop with a metal lancet. Then all the drops will be cleaned, and the patient sits in the waiting room for 15-20 minutes. The size of each allergic reaction will be noted, and doctors will prepare the treatment plan. This test is not painful. But, there might be small rashes, which might get better after some time. It is advised not to take antihistamines before the test. 

Treatment of a silk allergy

If you have a silk allergy, try to avoid wearing silk clothes and food or products containing silk. You can contact your GP for treatment options.  

  • Steroids: Ointments and creams containing mild steroids can be used to soothe the rash, itching, or swelling
  • Pills: In severe cases, pills or antibiotics can be prescribed to treat the rash or itching

Prevention of a silk allergy

If you have a known silk allergy, you can take certain precautions to prevent any possible allergic reactions. 

  • Avoid wearing silk garments
  • Avoid eating food containing silkworms
  • Apply anti-itch cream or ointment


Silk allergy refers to an allergic reaction after exposure to silk garments or consuming silkworm pupae. Silkworm pupae are a common snack option in some Asian countries such as China, Japan, or Korea as they have very high nutritional value and these countries report several cases of silkworm pupae allergy. 

Silk can also be used in textiles, food, medicines, and cosmetics. Symptoms of a silk allergy include urticaria, allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis, asthma, skin itching, dizziness, and anaphylaxis. Skin allergy tests or skin prick tests can help to diagnose a silk allergy. Steroid creams or antibiotics can be prescribed to treat silk allergy, depending on the severity of the allergic reaction. 


  1. Wu X, He K, Velickovic TC, Liu Z. Nutritional, functional, and allergenic properties of silkworm pupae. Food Sci Nutr [Internet]. 2021 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Sep 23];9(8):4655–65. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8358373/ 
  2. Jeong KY, Han IS, Lee JY, Park KH, Lee JH, Park JW. Role of tropomyosin in silkworm allergy. Molecular Medicine Reports [Internet]. 2017 May 1 [cited 2023 Sep 23];15(5):3264–70. Available from: https://www.spandidos-publications.com/10.3892/mmr.2017.6373 
  3. Jeong KY, Son M, Lee JY, Park KH, Lee JH, Park JW. Allergenic characterization of 27-kda glycoprotein, a novel heat stable allergen, from the pupa of silkworm, bombyx mori. J Korean Med Sci [Internet]. 2016 Jan [cited 2023 Sep 23];31(1):18–24. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4712575/ 
  4. Johnson W, Bergfeld WF, Belsito DV, Hill RA, Klaassen CD, Liebler DC, et al. Safety assessment of silk protein ingredients as used in cosmetics. Int J Toxicol [Internet]. 2020 Nov [cited 2023 Sep 23];39(3_suppl):127S-144S. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1091581820966953 
  5. Gowda G, Shivalingaiah AH, Vijayeendra AM, Sarkar N, Nagaraj C, Masthi NRR. Sensitization to silk allergen among workers of silk filatures in India: a comparative study. Asia Pac Allergy [Internet]. 2016 Apr [cited 2023 Sep 23];6(2):90–3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4850340/ 
  6. Murphy, Patrick B, et al. “Allergic Contact Dermatitis.” Nih.gov, StatPearls Publishing, 26 July 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532866/.
  7. Joshi, M., et al. “Antimicrobial Textiles for Health and Hygiene Applications Based on Eco-Friendly Natural Products.” Science Direct, Elsevier, 2010, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/sericin
  8. Joshi, M., et al. “Antimicrobial Textiles for Health and Hygiene Applications Based on Eco-Friendly Natural Products.” Science Direct, Elsevier, 2010, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/sericin
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Simmi Anand

B.Sc. Nuclear Medicine, Manipal University
MBA Healthcare Services, Sikkim Manipal University

An experienced Nuclear Medicine professional with a passion for writing.

She is experienced in dealing with patients suffering from different ailments, mostly cancer.

Simmi took a career break to raise her daughter with undivided attention.

During this time, she fine-tuned her writing skills and started writing stories for her child. Today, Simmi is a published author of 'Story time with proverbs' series for young ones. She also enjoys writing parenting blogs on her website www.simmianand.com.

Simmi hopes to reignite her career as a medical writer, combining her medical knowledge with her zeal for writing to produce informative health articles for her readers.

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