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The real difference: Food allergy versus food intolerance


Have you ever eaten ice cream and quickly discovered that it really didn’t agree with you or scarfed down some waffles and regretted it because your stomach was killing you? You might have a food intolerance. Likewise, if you have ever eaten a peach and suddenly broke out into hives or felt your throat constrict after enjoying a fish taco, you may very well have a food allergy.

The difference between them is fairly simple. Food allergies are more serious and usually involve more than one system or organ within your body. They are caused by an over-release of histamine and other allergy mediators into your bloodstream. Histamine is a chemical in your body designed to attack foreign substances but when you are allergic to something, it goes into overdrive and causes way more harm than good. Serious reactions can any result in anaphylactic shock which causes cough, chest discomfort, cough, diarrhea, hives, itchiness, nausea, slurred speech, wheezing, difficulty breathing, swelling of the face, mouth, airway constriction, and vomiting, among other symptoms and can result in death if left untreated.

Food intolerances, on the other hand, just make you feel awful. Usually, they involve just your digestive system, sometimes isolated parts of it and sometimes all of it. For example, some people have lactose intolerance which is caused by the absence of an enzyme that breaks down the sugar naturally found in milk. Stomach and digestion problems are typical. The only food intolerance that stimulates more than just one system is Celiac Disease. Celiac Disease is an intolerance to gluten, a protein often found in wheat and barley products and does involve the immune system unlike other food intolerances; it cause the immune system to attack the small intestines.

If you are worried you might have a food allergy, talk to your primary health care provider about it. They can refer you to an allergy specialists who will do a test. Common tests include a skin prick test where they introduce a small amount of a potential allergen to your test via a needle and then watch for your skin to react. The other common practice is taking blood samples and introducing potential allergens to the blood samples and measuring the allergy specific antibodies.

If you are concerned you may be suffering from a food intolerance your doctor may be able to help you set up a diet that will help you avoid eating triggering foods. In some instances general practitioners will recommend you visit a nutritionist who is specially trained to set up special diets for people with dietary restrictions.

Don’t ignore the signs your body is giving you. Listen to how it reacts to certain foods and consult a physician to help you discern if you need to take on a special diet or avoid problem foods.

Photo via Flickr

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