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What Are the Differences Between Food Allergies and Intolerances?

If you eat a meal, then experience symptoms like upset stomach, vomiting, or diarrhea, you might suspect that you’ve had food poisoning. But if you have a totally different meal with a similar set of ingredients the next day, and you have the same symptoms, you might think that the problem instead rests within your own body.

You might have a food allergy or a food intolerance. But what’s the difference between these two concepts? And how can you tell whether an ingredient is triggering an allergic or intolerance reaction within you?

What Is a Food Allergy?

An  allergic reaction to food has the potential to be life-threatening. If you have an allergy to a specific food ingredient, it means your body is treating that food ingredient as harmful, even though it’s harmless. Ordinarily, your immune system is a robust and reliable system of defenses meant to hunt down and eliminate foreign, harmful substances; for example, if your immune system detects a malicious virus spreading throughout your body, it may deploy countermeasures to eliminate that virus and help you recover.

In an allergic reaction, your immune system identifies specific food elements as dangerous, so it deploys antibodies to handle those food elements. These antibodies produce histamine, which is a chemical that can cause inflammation in your digestive tract, as well as your Airways and sinuses.

In mild allergic reactions, you might experience symptoms like nasal congestion, a scratchy throat, hives across your skin, or nausea. In more severe reactions, you might notice that your face becomes flushed, you might have difficulty swallowing, or you might experience vomiting or diarrhea. If you notice your airway swelling, if you find it harder to breathe, or if you feel a sudden drop in your blood pressure, you should get immediate medical attention.

What Is a Food Intolerance?

Food intolerance can be extreme, but it’s usually milder than an allergic reaction. If you’re intolerant to a specific element of food, it means you’re not able to process or digest the element as readily or easily as you would other food elements.

Food intolerances can be attributed to any of the following (as well as other factors):

  • Missing enzymes. Some people have food intolerances because they’re missing critical enzymes that are necessary for breaking a food element down. For example, people with lactose intolerance generally don’t have the enzyme necessary to process lactose.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your digestive system may be especially sensitive to certain foods, such as spicy foods. When you eat these foods or food elements, it can trigger inflammation and discomfort.
  • Food additive sensitivities. Some people are also sensitive to specific food additives, like colorings or stabilizers.

If you have a food intolerance, you might experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or other digestive discomfort. You generally won’t experience symptoms like difficulty breathing or a swollen throat, though you may have headaches or other mild symptoms.

Also, many food intolerance symptoms can be avoided if you only eat a small amount of food; if you’re lactose intolerant, and you’re eating something with only a small sprinkle of parmesan cheese, you may escape totally unscathed.

What to Do If You Have a Reaction

What should you do if you have a physical reaction to something you ate?

  • Get immediate medical attention (if necessary). If you notice any severe symptoms like difficulty breathing, it’s important to get immediate medical attention at a hospital or urgent care facility.
  • Document what you ate. Write down what you ate, including all the ingredients that were in this dish. If you’re not sure which ingredient caused your reaction, this data will be valuable to you in the future.
  • Pay attention to your symptoms. Do your symptoms more closely align with a food allergy or a food intolerance? In some cases, this can be difficult to discern.
  • Talk to a doctor. If you experience these symptoms on a recurring basis, consider talking to your doctor about your options. They may be able to diagnose your allergy/intolerance.
  • Get tested. Undergoing a thorough allergen screening can help you better understand what you’re allergic to.
  • Prepare for a possible allergic reaction. If you’re strongly allergic to a certain type of food, ingesting it could cause anaphylaxis. Keep epinephrine on hand so you can appropriately respond when necessary.

Food allergies and intolerances should both be taken seriously, but these are totally different phenomena. Unlike food intolerances, food allergies are genuinely life threatening when severe, so they need to be taken even more seriously. You should always exercise caution when trying new foods and be prepared to take emergency action when necessary if you have a specific food allergy.