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Food Allergy & Food Intolerance: What’s The Difference?

Posted on: August 18, 2021

You probably know people who are intolerant or sensitive to certain foods, but what does it mean to have a food allergy? Often food intolerances or sensitivities are confused with food allergies, but the differences can be significant. If you’re suffering from an intolerance, a sensitivity, or an allergy, it’s important to fully understand your condition so you can best protect your health.

What Is a Food Intolerance?

Reactions to food happen more frequent than you might think, but they’re typically caused by food intolerances rather than true allergies. Food intolerances can cause similar symptoms to allergies and the terms often are used interchangeably.

As opposed to allergies, food intolerances do not involve a response by the immune system. Food intolerances and sensitivities happen in one of two ways:
• Once in the digestive tract, a food triggers an intolerance, and the body cannot properly break down the food
• The body reacts to a component of a food to which you’re sensitive. For instance, histamine-containing foods may trigger a headache if you are sensitive to the substance

A number of causes may be responsible for food sensitivities or intolerances, including:
• Reactions to food additives, including artificial colors and sulfites
• A lack of the correct enzymes for breaking down specific foods (ex. Lactose intolerance)
• Sensitivity to chemicals like caffeine
• Psychological influences, including recurring stress and an aversion to specific foods
• A sensitivity to the toxins present in some raw legumes
• Food poisoning, caused by toxins such as bacteria in food that has gone bad
• Irritable bowel syndrome, which can result in diarrhea, constipation and cramping
• Celiac disease, a chronic problem with digestion caused by gluten

Food intolerances result in digestive symptoms, including gas, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, nausea and cramping. The symptoms of food sensitivities can vary.

Food Allergy: Serious Symptoms

In a true food allergy, the immune system reacts, affecting various organs throughout the body. Allergies can cause a variety of symptoms and can be extremely serious and even life-threatening. If you think you might have a food allergy, it’s important to seek treatment from a qualified allergist.

Food allergies occur when the body identifies a protein in food as foreign or a potential invader. The body then reacts by producing antibodies to fight the foreign substance. Common causes of food allergies include, but aren’t limited to, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts), shellfish, milk and eggs.

Unlike food sensitivities and intolerances, allergies to food can prove fatal. In some cases, an individual with a severe food allergy can suffer an extreme reaction by ingesting just a tiny amount of the food. Severe skin reactions can also occur from cutaneous exposure, that is, just by touching the food.

Food allergy symptoms can include:
Anaphylaxis, which includes dizziness, wheezing or trouble breathing, even a drop in blood pressure. The condition can be fatal without immediate medical treatment.
• Hives, itching, swelling and other skin reactions.
• Digestive problems.

Could It Be Something Else?

If your allergist has ruled out food allergies, and your doctor cannot find any food intolerance, other causes may need to be considered. Accordingly, your discomfort may stem from:

  • Infections such as stomach flu
  • Reaction to a medication
  • Concussion or brain injury
  • Emotional stress
  • Initial stages of pregnancy
  • Heart attack
  • Stomach flu
  • Motion sickness
  • Ulcers
  • Reaction to certain smells and odors
  • Rhinitis (stuffy nose)

Understand Your Condition and Protect Yourself

Since food allergies and food intolerance share similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the two apart. If you believe you have symptoms of food intolerance, it’s important to be tested to ensure you aren’t suffering from a potentially dangerous food allergy. A diagnosis of food allergy may require avoiding the food item and being prepared to use self-injectable epinephrine in an emergency. With 15 locations in Charlotte and beyond, Carolina Asthma & Allergy has a location convenient to you. Our board-certified allergist are here to answer your questions about food allergies, food intolerance and more.  Contact Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center to schedule an appointment.

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