[Skip to Content]

Upstate Answers: Is colored cornstarch safe for the lungs?

The Q: The colored cornstarch used in promotional running events is supposedly safe for the skin, but what about the lungs? I awoke in a coughing fit the morning after the event.

Providing the A: Robert Lenox, MD, professor of medicine and division chief of Pulmonary/Critical Care at Upstate University Hospital, says:

“Most likely the coughing was not related to the cornstarch.  However, if you have environmental allergies, it might be possible to develop an allergy to a protein found in the cornstarch. (It is unlikely that the starch is pure starch, and there are probably some proteins from the corn in the cornstarch). This could produce an asthma attack if you develop an allergy, an IgE antibody to the protein. This would be similar to inhaling ragweed, dust mites, cat dander, or other environmental allergens and then developing an asthma attack.  Sometimes asthma manifests as a cough, and one does not develop wheezing or shortness of breath.

“An alternative explanation for your cough is exercise-induced asthma.  This occurs because you lose heat from your airway when you exercise, and this may precipitate an asthma attack in those who are predisposed to exercise- induced asthma.  As mentioned, asthma may manifest itself as a cough without other symptoms.

“A third explanation for the cough is that while you were running you inhaled environmental allergens such as tree pollens.  These allergens may have precipitated an asthma attack.

“Finally, you may have been coming down with viral respiratory infection, and that caused a cough.”