Is it a Food Allergy or Intolerance?

May 21, 2013

Food allergies and food intolerances affect millions of people of all ages. It is important to know the difference between the two to help prevent and treat potentially serious and life-threatening reactions.
Food allergies affect millions of people daily in the United States. Normally, the body’s immune system identifies and destroys bacteria and viruses that often make you sick. When someone has a food allergy, their body’s immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless food protein as a threat, and attacks it with antibodies. These antibodies fight the food allergen by releasing chemicals and histamines, therefore triggering the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
There are a wide range of symptoms from mild to severe that shortly appear after eating the trigger food. In several cases, an anaphylactic attack might occur, which is a severe, potentially fatal allergic reaction.

MildModerateSevereItchy skinVomitingTrouble swallowingSneezingNasal congestionShortness of breathNauseaSlight, dry coughSwelling of lips/tongue/throatHivesStomach painTurning blueRedness of SkinDiarrheaDrop in blood pressureChest painA weak pulse


Make sure you seek attention if you develop any of the above listed symptoms. Severe symptoms, especially when they are combined with any mild/moderate symptoms, might be a sign of anaphylaxis and will require immediate treatment.
If you have allergies and carry an Epi-Pen on you in case of an emergency, make sure you seek IMMEDIATE medical attention after injecting yourself with epinephrine. Even if symptoms subside after the injection, the reaction May return several hours later. Play it safe and go to the nearest emergency room or call 911.
If you or someone you love has allergies, make sure you learn as much as you can about avoiding them.

  • Be aware of the ingredients in food labels and when dining out don’t hesitate to ask questions.
  • Always carry your medication, especially your Epi-pen. Make sure you know how to properly use these medications.
  • Wear allergy identification (ex. bracelets or other jewelry) at all times
  • Get to an emergency room or call 911 immediately for further medical treatment, even if you used your emergency medication.

Food intolerances, on the other hand, are reactions to different chemical components of one’s diet. It is not an immune response like an allergy. Food intolerance may be caused by certain organic chemicals such as food additives, preservatives, colorings, flavorings, sulfites, or dyes. In comparison to allergens, food intolerance is completely different and is more common.
Symptoms of food intolerance can be very similar to an allergy, but they usually take longer to develop and may only happen when you eat a large amount of that trigger food. Symptoms of food intolerance might include:

HivesUpset stomachDiarrheaNauseaBloatingAsthma-like symptomsNasal congestionConstipationHeadacheGasNervousnessSweating


Common food intolerance reactions are caused by dairy products, chocolate, eggs, MSG, fruits, and wine. Outcome for food intolerance is generally good and non-life threatening.
The easiest way to prevent food allergies or food intolerances is to avoid the food or derivatives in general. You can never be too cautious!
For more information about food allergies and food intolerances visit:
www.aafp.org

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