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Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

The internet is a fantastic tool with so much information at our fingertips.  However, people tend to jump on the internet and self diagnose themselves with things.  One thing in particular is self diagnosis (with no medical testing) of food allergies.  What millions of people assume is a food allergy, is actually an intolerance.  Knowing the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance is very important because it can be life-threatening, if not handled properly.

Food reactions are common, but most are caused by a food intolerance rather than a food allergy.   However, a food intolerance can cause some of the same signs and symptoms as a food allergy, so people often confuse the two.

A true food allergy actually causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body.  Even a minuscule amount of the allergen can cause an immediate, severe, and life threatening reaction. Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, cramping and diarrhea. Other symptoms can include a tingling mouth, hives, and swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat.  Anaphylaxis can result which causes breathing trouble and dangerously low blood pressure. If you have a food allergy, avoid the allergen COMPLETELY.

With a food intolerance, symptoms generally come on gradually.  Also, they don’t involve an immune system reaction. People with a food intolerance, is usually able to eat small amounts of the food without trouble.  You may also take steps which allow you to eat the offending foods.  For example, if you are lactose intolerance, you may be able to drink lactose-free milk or take lactase enzyme pills that aid digestion.  Food intolerance symptoms are typically limited to digestive problems.

Some causes of food intolerance:

  • Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest certain foods – Lactose intolerance is a very common
  • Irritable bowel syndromethe condition causes cramping, constipation, and diarrhea
  • Sensitivity to food additives – The sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods, and wine can actually trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people
  • Celiac diseaseunlike other food intolerances, Celiac disease does involve the immune system. It is triggered by eating gluten, which is a protein found in wheat and other grains. However,  Celiac disease symptoms stay gastrointestinal and Celiac disease does not cause anaphylaxis.

If you have a reaction after eating a particular food, see your doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy.  Even if your past food allergy reactions have been mild, you are at risk for a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).  The more you ingest the allergen, the worse the allergy and reactions can get.

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