Food Intolerance Vs. Allergy: What’s the Difference?

Food Intolerance Vs. Allergy – Overview

Sometimes the food that we eat doesn’t agree with us causing either an allergic or a food intolerance or sensitivity. Often used interchangeably, food intolerance and allergy have a lot of difference between them that vary from causes, symptoms and treatments. The symptoms, at times, may appear similar but they affect your body in different ways ranging from miler to severe reactions.

What Is Food Intolerance?
When you have a reaction or more-a-like a digestive system response, then that would be called as intolerance. It is an inability to digest food properly. Food intolerance does not involve the immune system and is only a gastrointestinal reaction to some certain foods. These reactions do not react immediately and take time to show. The most common food intolerance would be lactose intolerance which is due to lactose found in milk and people who are missing the enzyme “lactase” which helps break down the sugars in dairy products, have lactose intolerance. Other food intolerances include wheat, gluten a certain fruits and a few vegetables.

What Is A Food Allergy?
The body’s immune system is a defense against invaders like bacteria, fungus, or the common cold virus. When you have a food allergy, the immune system in your body recognizes a protein in the food as an invader, and produces antibodies to fight it. A true food allergy causes the immune system to react on numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms including rashes, colds, stomach infection etc. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening and do much damage when it comes to a vulnerable body.

Food Intolerance vs. Allergy: Symptoms

Food allergy can be triggered by even a small portion of the food and could occur every time the food is consumed. But food intolerances often depend upon the quantity of the food. People with food intolerance may not have symptoms unless they eat the specific trigger frequently or in a large portion. Symptoms of a food allergy can be quick and range from mild to severe to extreme, and the portion of food necessary to cause a reaction varies from person to person. On the other hand, symptoms of food intolerance may take time to show and it isn’t as life threatening in comparison with food allergies. 

Food Intolerance Symptoms
Food intolerances do not involve the immune system but instead are caused by an inability to process or digest a particular food. Food sensitivities and intolerances are more frequent than food allergies. A food triggers intolerance in your digestive tract. Hence the body cannot properly break it down and use it for nutrition.

Symptoms of food intolerance include:

  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Gas, cramps or bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Irritability or nervousness

Food Allergy Symptoms
Food allergy is an autoimmune reaction to the food. Food allergies arise from sensitivity to chemical compounds found in particular food, even though it is natural. Often, people experience a combination of symptoms as the food is eaten and is being digested. Food allergies, unlike a food intolerance or sensitivity, can be sometimes, in extreme cases, fatal.

Symptoms of Food allergy include:

  • Rash, hives, itchy skin
  • Eczema, dermatitis
  • Redness and inflammation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Anaphylaxis – a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction

According to a study, 1 in 3 people report a food allergy, although only 1 in 20 actually do have it. This happens due to a lack of understanding of the clinical gradations of food allergy and food intolerance. Sometimes even normal responses to food are thought of as an allergy or intolerance. It is very important for the healthcare provider to educate the patients regarding the ways to know if you have food allergy or food intolerance.

Food Intolerance vs. Allergy: Causes

If you have food intolerance or sensitivity, you may be able to eat small portion of the offending food without trouble. You may also be able to prevent a reaction by replacing the offending food product with the nearest edible replacement. But in all cases for food allergy, even the smallest portions of the offending food type could cause a severe reaction with the extremity being anaphylaxis.

Food Intolerance Causes
Since food allergies occur due to the sensitivity of the body to the chemical compounds present in the offending food, there are many dynamics that may accord towards food intolerance. In some cases — as with lactose intolerance — the individual lacks the chemical called as enzymes which is necessary to properly digest certain proteins found in food. Also, there are a few common intolerances towards a few chemical ingredients that are added to the food to provide color, enhance taste and preservative. These ingredients include various dyes and monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer.

Causes of food intolerance include:

  • Absence of an enzyme required to fully digest a food. Ex. Lactose intolerance.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome – causes cramping, constipation and diarrhea.
  • Sensitivity to food additives. For example, sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people.
  • Recurring stress or psychological factors. Sometimes the mere thought of a food may make you sick. The reason is not fully understood.
  • Celiac disease. Celiac disease has some features of a true food allergy because it involves the immune system. Symptoms often include gastrointestinal issues as well as those unrelated to the digestive system, such as joint pain and headaches. However, people with celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis. This chronic digestive condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.

Food Allergy Causes
Food allergies are more common in people whose family members have allergies, suggesting a genetic — or hereditary — factor may be involved with the development of food allergies. A food allergy is caused by your immune system handling the harmless proteins that it mistaken for as allergens in certain foods as a threat. It releases a number of chemicals, which trigger an allergic reaction. The most common is an immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated reaction. IgEs are allergic immunizer which causes an immediate reaction when chemicals, like histamine from mast cells, are released. The allergy symptoms you have depend on where in the body the histamine is released. If the chemical is released in the ears, nose and throat, an itchy nose and mouth could be the symptom, or you could have trouble breathing or swallowing. If it is released in the skin, you may develop hives or a rash. If it is released in the gastrointestinal tract, you likely will develop stomach pains, cramps or diarrhea.

Food Intolerance Test vs. Allergy Test: Diagnosis

If you are unsure about the symptoms and want to distinguish between an allergy and intolerance, you can do blood tests or a skin prick test. A skin prick test is the most common way to detect allergies; however, it isn’t a 100 per cent accurate.

What Is Food Intolerance Test?
Since food intolerances and food allergies have similar symptoms, it can get a little tricky to diagnose your condition. If you have several food intolerances, it gets even more complicated. Additionally, a few symptoms can mimic those of chronic digestive ailments other than intolerance like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). However, some contrasting patterns can help the doctor differentiate between the two.

Although you won’t find any reliable tests unless you visit a certified healthcare provider, to date lactose intolerance and celiac disease tests help identify food intolerances. Another tool that could work best for food intolerances is the elimination or a diagnostic diet. Preferably, a skin prick test or blood test could help you rule out a food allergy.

What Is A Food Allergy Test?
A food allergy test can either be a skin prick or a blood test that helps you and your healthcare provider figure out if you’re allergic to specific foods and which ones. Or if you think certain foods might be giving you trouble, allergy testing can help you figure out what’s going on. They healthcare providers may ask you questions about what you think you’re allergic to and the symptoms occurring. Sometimes that’s enough to pinpoint the offensive food, or the doctor may suggest some tests. Allergy testing can help us to find out what you’re allergic to, but it isn’t foolproof. After your tests are done, you’ll need to work together to get the right diagnosis.

Food Intolerance vs. Allergy: Treatment

Consult with your doctor and eliminate any foods that could cause allergies or intolerance from your diet. If you’re not sure which food is causing your allergy or intolerance, try an elimination diet, which is an eating plan that eliminates the most common foods that can cause allergic reactions or intolerance.

Food Intolerance Treatment
In order to treat food intolerances, you must avoid or limit your intake of offending foods. It also requires dealing with the consequences of eating any problematic meals. For example, if you have heartburn or stomach cramps, you may be prescribed an antacid. To check if your symptoms improve, try eliminating the suspicious food from your diet for 2 to 6 weeks. To observe whether symptoms reappear, reintroduce the food. You may discover that you can tolerate a particular threshold and only have symptoms if you exceed it. While you’re doing this trial, consult a dietician to ensure you’re getting all of your recommended daily nutrients.

Food Allergy Treatment

For a minor allergic reaction:  Antihistamines, whether over-the-counter or prescribed, can help reduce symptoms. These medications can be used to treat itching and hives after being exposed to an allergy-causing food. Antihistamines, on the other hand, cannot treat a severe allergic reaction.

For a severe allergic reactionYou may require an epinephrine shot and a trip to the emergency department. Many allergy sufferers keep an epinephrine auto injector handy on the just in case. This device combines a syringe and a hidden needle to deliver a single dose of medication and is usually used on the thigh.

Food Intolerance vs. Allergy: Prevention

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Food allergy patients are often recommended to avoid the problematic foods entirely. Food intolerances, on the other hand, are typically dose-related; people with food intolerance may not experience symptoms unless they consume a substantial amount of the food or consume it regularly.

Food Intolerance Prevention
Taking a few simple steps can help you prevent the symptoms associated with food intolerance.

  • Learn which foods in which amounts cause you to have symptoms, and limit your intake to amounts you can handle.
  • While dining out, inquire about the preparation of your food with your server. Some meals may contain foods you can’t tolerate, which may not be evident from the menu description.
  • Learn to read food labels and look for problem foods in the ingredients. Don’t forget to double-check seasonings and condiments. It’s possible that they may contain MSG or another ingredient that causes symptoms.

Food Allergy Prevention
Finding ways to prevent the development of food allergies is critical because the symptoms of food allergies can have a substantial impact on one’s health and lifestyle. Limiting allergen exposure during the prenatal and postnatal periods has been a focus of prevention initiatives (e.g., via the maternal diet and during infant feeding).

You should be careful about avoiding the food once your doctor or allergist has tested and confirmed food sensitivities (s). Always read food labels, and if you have any questions about an ingredient, contact the manufacturer. Inform your child’s relatives, caretakers, and instructors about his or her allergies.

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How Common Are Food Allergies And Intolerances?

Food allergies afflict approximately 1% of adults and 7% of children, though some youngsters outgrow their allergies. Food intolerance is becoming increasingly widespread. In reality, almost everyone has had a bad reaction to food at some point in their lives. Certain foods cause food intolerance in some people.

Is Intolerance The Same As An Allergy?

As mentioned earlier, a food allergy causes an immune reaction that affects several organs throughout the body. It can take many forms. In extreme cases, an allergic reaction to food might be fatal. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are typically milder and limited to digestive issues.

You may be at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction if you have a food allergy, even if past reactions were mild (anaphylaxis). Learn how to recognize a severe allergic reaction and how to respond if one occurs. You may need to keep an emergency epinephrine dose on you in case of an emergency (Adrenaclick, Auvi-Q, EpiPen).

If you have food intolerance, your doctor may recommend steps to aid digestion of certain foods or to treat the underlying condition causing your reaction

When to See Doctor

In case of severe reactions like:

  • If you experience hives or swollen lips or tongue, difficulty breathing
  • If you experience changes in your consciousness after eating
  • If you experience two or more of hives, swollen lips, hypotension or gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, severe nausea, or diarrhea) after eating
  • If you have an asthma attack after eating

These symptoms can point towards a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, is a life-threatening reaction that is sometimes triggered by food allergens. The patient may also require immediate medical attention from a medical professional if not responded to rescue medication.

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