What’s the Difference Between a Food Allergy and a Food Intolerance?

stomach painWhen you have a bad reaction to food, it’s easy to confuse whether you’re experiencing symptoms of a food allergy or food intolerance. For most people, these two conditions may seem one and the same, but in reality, they are very distinct. The ability to distinguish the two can greatly help to treat the cause and prevent further illnesses. If you’ve been searching for the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance, then you’re in the right place. We share expert advice guaranteed to clear the confusion.

Food Intolerance

Usually, a food intolerance episode takes place in your digestive system due to difficulty in breaking down certain foods. Frequently, it results in abdominal pain and discomfort. This happens when the enzyme responsible for digesting food is missing. Other causes of food intolerance include:

  • Celiac disease, a chronic digestive disease affecting the immune system, which may show confusing symptoms. However, people with celiac disease are rarely at risk of anaphylaxis. Since it’s caused after consuming gluten, a plant protein, your body may become intolerant to gluten.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
  • Sensitivity to certain food additives.
  • Food poisoning.
  • Sensitivity to natural food chemicals such as sugars found in broccoli, sprouts, onions among other foods.

Let’s consider lactose intolerance, for instance. This is when your body is unable to properly break down lactose, the sugar commonly found in dairy products. Food intolerance can be as a result of specific foods such as gluten, dairy, and foods that can lead to a buildup of gas like cabbages and beans. If you experience a food intolerance, you can still enjoy the food in question in small amounts without feeling the effects.

Symptoms of Food Intolerance

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Nausea

Unlike a food allergy, food intolerance can take several hours after ingesting the offending food to take effect.

Food Allergy

Your body has a defense mechanism, the immune system, that fights harmful bacteria, fungus or virus. If you have a food allergy, the immune system mistakes certain foods that you eat as intruders. It responds by producing the antibodies, Immunoglobulin E or IgE, to wade off the ‘invaders’ resulting in allergic reactions.

Symptoms of Food Allergy

Some of these symptoms are less severe and easily treatable including:

  • Eczema
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Hives, itching, swelling and other skin reactions
  • Tingling mouth

Unlike food intolerance, a food allergy can lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition which requires urgent treatment. Apart from the above symptoms, people with anaphylaxis experience:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Fainting
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Skin rash
  • Shock
  • Swelling in the mouth, lips, and throat

Food allergies usually manifest within minutes after ingestion or exposure to the allergen. Most food allergies occur due to a protein in peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, milk, shellfish, soybeans, and wheat.

peanut butter

Diagnosis and Management

Because of some overlapping similarities of symptoms in food allergies and food intolerances, making the right diagnosis can prove to be difficult. For a food allergy, there are two tests that an allergist can take.

  1. Blood test. This involves examining the amount of Immunoglobulin specific for a particular food in your blood. If there’s a high IgE number of this food-specific allergy, it shows a likely reaction to the food if the affected person consumes it.
  2. Skin prick test. Here, a liquid containing the suspected food protein is applied on your skin and then the skin is pricked for the solution to enter the epidermis. If a skin rash or hive develops on your skin, it indicates a possible food reaction if that particular food is eaten.

Unfortunately, these tests are not 100 percent accurate and an oral challenge may be more effective to bring to light the presence of a particular food allergy. When it comes to food intolerances, it’s important to establish the root cause of foods causing sensitivity to know the most effective treatment. Elimination tests can be carried out, where a patient uses a food diary to record patterns of symptoms when they experience a reaction after eating food.

For instance, if you notice reactions after taking foods containing lactose, it means you’re intolerant to lactose. With this knowledge, you can either avoid foods containing lactose or take lactase tablets before consuming foods with lactose.

Like we mentioned earlier, food intolerance is not life-threatening and should not be cause for alarm. On the other hand, food allergies should be handled seriously and you should always carry an epinephrine pen if you have a severe food allergy.

Take Home Message

As you can see, there’s a big difference between a food allergy and food intolerance. Since food intolerances may be inconsistent, you might take a particular symptom lightly, which could turn out to be fatal. That’s why telling the two conditions apart could help prevent serious complications and even save a life.

All images via Pixabay


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