What is the difference between food intolerance and a food allergy? Let’s look into it:
Why the confusion?
It’s easy to confuse food intolerances with food allergies, and vice versa, as the symptoms of both can often overlap. However, they are two different medical conditions and should be treated as such. While both cause unpleasant or uncomfortable reactions in the body, food allergies, unlike intolerances, can be life-threatening. Therefore, it’s important to know the difference.
Which is more prevalent?
Food intolerances are more common than food allergies. It is estimated that roughly three million Americans suffer from food intolerances, although since many people self-diagnose and self-treat their symptoms, a precise figure is difficult to approximate. Food allergies are less common, and the Food Allergy and Research organization reports that, “only about 5% of children have clinically proven allergic reactions to foods. In teens and adults, food allergies occur in about 4% of the total population.”
What is a food intolerance?
A person suffering from food intolerance will encounter difficulty digesting specific foods. As a result, their body may produce uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea, heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, hives, or more. These symptoms are often alleviated once suspect foods are eliminated from the diet. Foods commonly associated with intolerances include dairy products, gluten-rich grains, and foods which cause intestinal gas buildup, such as beans, cabbage and broccoli.
A food intolerance to broccoli, for example, may result from the body’s inability to break down raffinose, a sugar found in the vegetable. Physical symptoms usually occur in individuals within a few hours of consuming the problematic food. As the offending food moves through the small and large intestines, physical pain or medical symptoms such as excessive gas, or diarrhea may occur. Once the cause of the intolerance is identified, diet modifications or the use of enzymes to aid digestion can be helpful forms of treatment.
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is categorically more dangerous than a food intolerance. Unlike an intolerance to food, a food allergy can cause serious or life-threating reactions by eating even a microscopic amount. For some, simply touching or inhaling the offending food can trigger an immediate reaction of the immune system.
How does a food allergy affect the immune system?
The immune system controls how your body defends itself. So, for instance, if you have an allergy to cow’s milk, your immune system identifies cow’s milk as an invader or allergen. Your immune system overreacts to this “invader” by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies then travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction. Reactions from allergies may include hives, itchiness, swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory symptoms, and in extreme cases, anaphylaxis.
What is anaphylaxis?
Anaphylaxis, a dangerous allergic reaction, includes difficulty breathing, dizziness, or loss of consciousness. This is a potential and serious problem for people with allergies. Without immediate medical treatment, a person with food allergies could die after eating or coming into contact with foods to which they are allergic. For this reason, people with potential food allergies should be tested to learn which foods to avoid. A person with food allergies should always be equipped with some sort of “antidote” to stop the allergic reaction—typically the drug of choice is epinephrine, which “shuts down” an allergic reaction by stopping the immune system from releasing any more allergic chemicals. Epinephrine increases the heart rate, tightens the blood vessels, and relaxes the muscles surrounding the lungs, opening up the airways and preventing the person from going into anaphylactic shock.
Should you see your doctor?
Yes. Rather than risk guessing whether you have an intolerance versus an allergy, it’s best to visit your doctor to receive a proper diagnosis, acquire tips for treatment or avoidance, and to ensure that you are adequately prepared to handle any possible allergy-related emergencies.