Food Allergies, Food Intolerance or Food Sensitivity?

Health Professional

Allergic reactions to ingredients in the foods you eat can range from mild to severe; they can even be life-threatening in some cases. But not every reaction to food is an allergic reaction. Some people just have trouble tolerating certain foods. For instance, my daughter can't tolerate parmesan cheese. If she eats more than a sprinkle, she has nausea and diarrhea.

Of course, if you are sensitive to food in any way, you'll want to avoid eating it. But it is especially important to identify food allergies because the resulting symptoms can be so serious.

Food Allergies

Any food has the potential to trigger an allergic reaction. However, the vast majority of all food allergies are caused by these 8 foods:

  • milk
  • soy
  • eggs
  • wheat
  • peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • fish
  • shellfish

Your immune system's job is to protect you from potentially harmful substances. When you have food allergies, though, your extra-sensitive immune system overreacts to harmless substances found in food and drink.

This  reaction triggers allergy symptoms, such as:

  • swelling and itching of your lips, as well as the lining of the mouth

throat tightness and hoarseness

  • nausea
  • cramping
  • pain
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea

The symptoms above may occur both right after you eat or drink the food, as well as over succeeding hours, as the food makes it way through your system.

Hives and swelling of the skin can also occur after the food leaves your digestive tract.

But, by far the most serious result from eating food you are allergic to is an anapylactic reaction, also known as anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. If you start to notice the following symptoms, you need to get emergency medical help right away, as the symptoms can quickly progress to being life threatening.

  • wheezing
  • difficulty breathing
  • throat tightness
  • nausea
  • rapid pulse
  • flushing
  • faintness
  • itching of the palms and sole of the feet
  • even passing out

So how will you know if you have a food allergy? Often, you won't find out until you have the first reaction. And even then, it can be hard to figure out which particular food actually caused the allergy. Various allergy tests, such as scratch tests or RAST tests, can be done. Doctors may also try food challenges, where you eat tiny portions of a food and then watch for a reaction, or food elimination diets, where you eliminate foods from your regular diet one at a time to see what happens.

Once you know what you are allergic to, then you must be diligent in avoiding it. Even tiny amounts or just touching certain foods can trigger a reaction. Read food labels, and if you're eating out, ask if the food you're allergic to is used in any way in the preparation, even if it's not mentioned in the menu.

It's also a good idea to have injectable epinephrine with you at all times. Ask your doctor about prescribing an Epi-Pen or AnaKit. Antihistamines and steroids can also lessen food allergy symptoms.

Finally, wearing a Medic Alert bracelet identifying your food allergies can save your life in an emergency.

Food Intolerance

When you have an intolerance or sensitivity to food, it can be confused with an allergy. The difference, though, is that food allergies are reactions of your immune system, while food intolerances are reactions of your digestive system. In general, food intolerances are not as serious, though the symptoms may be extremely uncomfortable.

Lactose intolerance  is one of the most common types. When you have this, your food can't process the lactose in milk and other dairy products. Here are some of the symptoms of lactose intolerance:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating
  • Flatulence
  • Weight loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Slow growth
  • Abdominal distention
  • Abdominal fullness, gaseous
  • Diarrhea
  • Floating stools
  • Foul-smelling stools

To deal with a food intolerance, simply eliminate it from your diet. However, if the food is an essential nutrient, such as milk, you'll need to substitute an alternate nutrient so that you can stay healthy.