The Important Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

Difference between food allergy and food intolerance


Food allergies are serious. If you are the parent of a child with a true food allergy, you know this already. You know that exposure can lead to serious reactions, even anaphylaxis. Up to 8 percent of children in the U.S. have a real food allergy, and more than a third of those have had serious reactions to allergens. Many more may have food sensitivities or intolerances, which is very different from allergies.

According to a scientific review, almost one-third of people believe they have one or more food allergies. This doesn’t match up with reality, which means that many people who are sensitive to or intolerant of certain foods equate that with having an allergy. This can be confusing and even harmful. It devalues the seriousness of true food allergies. So what is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance?

What Is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy occurs when the immune system responds to a food as if it were harmful to the body. The immune system is designed to protect us from harmful substances. It identifies and targets dangerous bacteria and viruses to keep us well. It does this by creating antibodies that target and destroy the harmful invaders.

If you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly recognizes a certain food protein as an invader and as harmful. It creates antibodies to target and attack these supposed invaders, such as the protein in peanuts. The result of this attack is an allergic reaction, which depending on the person can range from mild to possibly fatal anaphylactic shock.

This immune response that occurs in someone with a food allergy is similar to what happens with any other kind of allergy. For instance, if you are allergic to pollen, your immune system responds to the pollen you inhale from the air, creates antibodies and attacks it, resulting in the common allergic reaction of a runny nose, itchy eyes and other symptoms.

What Is Food Intolerance?

Where a food allergy involves an immune system response, food intolerance involves a digestive system response. This is the difference between food allergy and food intolerance. If you are intolerant (or sometimes we say sensitive) to a certain food, it means that your digestive system doesn’t digest it easily. A common example of this is lactose intolerance. Someone with this condition is unable to completely digest lactose, a sugar in milk, which results in diarrhea, bloating, gas and other uncomfortable symptoms.

There are also other reasons that you may be sensitive to or intolerant of a food. Regardless of the reason, the symptoms are similar and may include diarrhea, headaches, stomach cramps, gas, bloating, nausea, vomiting and heartburn. Some of the things that cause these symptoms and that may get mistaken for a food allergy include:

  • A digestive issue, like lacking the right enzyme to break down a certain food
  • A sensitivity to food additives, like sulfites in preserved foods and wines
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, which is chronic and causes many of these digestive symptoms
  • Stress, which when severe enough can cause digestive issues
  • Food poisoning, which occurs when toxins like bacteria are present in foods

Symptoms of Food Allergies

To help you decide whether you or your child is experiencing a food allergy or intolerance, it helps to understand the symptoms. Of course, the best course of action is to see your doctor for testing, but here are some of the common symptoms of an allergic reaction to food:

  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramping and pain
  • Diarrhea
  • A skin rash or hives
  • Itchy skin
  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling in the airways, mouth or face

Some of these symptoms are digestive and similar to those of food intolerances. However, there are other, more serious symptoms that are not present when you are intolerant of a food. Some people with food allergies will get itchy rashes on the skin, but many experience anaphylaxis, which is more serious. This is the life-threatening reaction that causes swelling in the airways and makes breathing difficult. Without immediate treatment, this reaction is fatal.

Because food allergies can be so serious, it is crucial that people understand the difference between food allergy and food intolerance. Neither should be taken lightly, but when a food allergy can be fatal, it is important to have it properly diagnosed so that you can take precautions and know what the treatments are. If in doubt, always see your doctor or your child’s doctor for testing and a diagnosis.

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