What Is The Difference Between Food Allergies And Intolerance?

Allergies are a term too often thrown about for any adverse reaction to a food. Not everyone who has eaten something that appears to disagree with them suffers from a true allergy. For some, it may be an allergic reaction to something else; for others, it is not an allergy at all but an indication of a food intolerance.

What Is a Food Intolerance?

A food intolerance is the inability to digest a particular food. Common food intolerances are those to milk and milk products and wheat. An intolerance typically indicates the body’s inability to digest a specific enzyme. With milk, the obvious culprit is lactose. A food intolerance may make you feel ill but it is never life threatening. In this, it differs from allergies in a significant way.

Major Ways Food Intolerances Differ From Food Allergies

While many continue to confuse a food allergy with a food intolerance, they are very different in many ways. Three specifics to consider are

  1. Cause: Intolerance result from an inability to digest an enzyme; allergies are a reaction resulting from an overreaction or flawed reaction from the body’s immune system or IgE antibodies
  2. Amount: If you have a food intolerance, you may still be able to eat a small amount of the food causing the problem. You may also be able to eat it in an altered form. For example, soybeans may cause an upset stomach, but soy ice cream may not. For those with allergies ANY amount, no matter how small, may cause an immediate reaction
  3. Timing: Allergic reactions tend to occur immediately following the ingestion of the allergen (food); symptoms of food intolerance may occur anywhere from a few hours to a few days
  4. Effects: The effects of the two can be quite similar. Both may exhibit:
    1. Bloating
    2. Diarrhea
    3. Constipation
    4. IBS
    5. Skin problems e.g. eczema
    6. Joint pain
  5. With an onset of true allergies, however, the symptoms may be more severe. They can include:
    1. Hives rash or itchy skin
    2. Shortness of breath
    3. Chest pain
    4. Sudden drop in blood pressure
    5. Trouble swallowing
    6. Difficulty in breathing
  6. What clearly distinguishes the two is one very important characteristic. People do not die from a food intolerance. They do from an allergy.

Allergy or Intolerance: The Importance of Knowing the Difference

If you find yourself having an issue upon eating a certain food, consult a doctor. Only he or she can diagnose whether it is an allergy or a food intolerance. Only a medical professional, an allergist, can prescribe the very different routes you will need to take to avoid potentially life-threatening problems in the future. It may be as simple as taking a lactose enzyme pill before you try any dairy, or you may come to understand that, for the rest of your life, you may have to follow a special eating certain pattern.

Call our offices at 212-319-5282 to schedule an appointment with the best allergist in New York City.

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