Food allergies or food intolerance, which is which

May 15, 2017
Around this time of year, many people experience attacks of sneezing, wheezing, and other classic symptoms of seasonal allergies. But, one category of allergy is especially worrisome to people, in part because it can be among the deadliest: food allergies.

If you’ve just finished a meal and you start to feel “off,” – nauseous, dizzy, stomach pains, hot and prickly – is there something seriously wrong with you? Is it a food allergy? Or is it something else altogether? Food allergies and food intolerance can seem similar on the surface, but they’re two entirely different things.

Food Allergies

A food allergy is a serious medical condition in which exposure to certain foods triggers an immune response, or allergic reaction when a person’s immune system attacks specific proteins in food. These proteins are harmless to others, but people with food allergies have immune systems that produce abnormally large amounts of the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies detect the “enemy” proteins and fight them by releasing histamines, which in turn triggers the allergic reaction.

There are hundreds of foods identified as allergens, but eight of them cause the most severe reactions in the U.S.: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, eggs, milk, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.

These allergic reactions can affect multiple organs in the body and trigger a variety of symptoms. The symptoms can range from mild (rash or itchy mouth) to severe (swollen throat or difficulty breathing). Anaphylaxis is one of the most sudden and severe allergic reactions to the wrong foods and can be life-threatening.

It’s important for people with food allergies to recognize a severe reaction and know what to do in that event. Many people carry epinephrine shots, such as the EpiPen, to treat themselves in the case of an emergency.

Food Intolerance

Unlike an actual food allergy, food intolerance symptoms are usually less serious and are typically limited to digestive problems. Food additives, such as sulfites in wine, can cause intolerance in some people. Other people can develop food sensitivities purely from stress. Of course, toxins, such as bacteria in spoiled food, can cause actual food poisoning. If your doctor diagnoses a food intolerance, he or she may prescribe digestive aids or medicines to treat the underlying condition that is causing the allergic reaction.

Other common causes of food intolerance

Celiac disease. A chronic digestive disease triggered by eating gluten is known as celiac disease. People with celiac disease must avoid eating any foods containing wheat, rye, barley, and its by-products.

Lactose Intolerance. People whose digestive systems don’t produce enough of the lactase enzyme are unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Lactose-intolerant people can avoid an allergic reaction by drinking lactose-free milk or taking enzyme pills to help with digestion.

Irritable bowel syndrome. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that causes cramping, abdominal pain, constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. For many people, symptoms can be controlled with a combination of limited diet, medication and stress management.

Next steps

If you experience an adverse reaction after eating a particular food, you need to find out if you have a food intolerance or a food allergy. Visit a Swedish nutritionist or a primary care provider if you think you might have either one.