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Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance



A food allergy is usually any unwanted symptomatic reaction to the food you consume. The reactions are usually immediate after the consumption of the allergen. However, all reactions cannot be termed as allergies, as such reactions and their symptoms can also be due to the intolerance of those foods to your physiology.

Every individual’s physiology differs remarkably from one another, and the allergies or intolerances vary accordingly. Not to say that all individuals do show such symptoms.

If your body suffers from signs and symptoms after having a food item, it is best to find out if it is a food allergy or food intolerance. It helps with a better understanding of how and what quantity of certain foods may be unhealthy for your physiology. Additionally, it also clears the path to choosing to treat the same.

Food intolerance is usually a delayed systemic response of the body’s systems, which may even occur a few days or weeks after the consumption of a particular food item.

To give you an idea and to start with understanding the differences between the two, you must observe the cause of such symptoms—if it is the repeated consumption of certain food items or your everyday food intake.

Let’s get further into the meanings and differences between food allergy and intolerance for a detailed understanding of the two physiological aspects.

The Causes and Symptoms of Food Allergies

Food allergy is a condition that often surfaces due to the body’s immune system not working optimally. If your body suffers from a food allergy, it is likely because your immune system identifies the particular food item as a harmful, invading, foreign object, thus leading to a fight response.

A hyperactive immune system thus results in several observable symptoms that you may find surfacing in and on the body. Often, an allergic reaction is due to the high release of histamines in the body, a chemical addressing a local immune response in the body. It is ideally a useful chemical enabling blood thinning for the WBCs to pass easily and reach the affected location, among other purposes.

However, in the case of food allergies, the immune system’s overactive state leads to a release of histamine and other responsive chemicals in high quantities to counter such food’s impact. Such a sudden release of these chemicals leads to severe responses, which are allergic symptoms.

A food causing allergy in one’s body is identified as an allergen. Common food products that turn out to be allergens for a remarkable number of people include peanuts, animal dander, pollen, seafood, among others.

Common symptoms related to a food allergy that one might come across include the likes of -

  1. Itching in the body
  2. Breathing trouble due to constricted/inflamed lungs
  3. Excessive watery discharge from the eyes
  4. Swelling and congestion in the nose
  5. Diarrhoea and vomiting in severe cases
  6. Red rashes on the skin
  7. Pressure in the chest or pain
  8. Anaphylaxis in fatal conditions

The Causes and Symptoms of Food Intolerance

Unlike a food allergy, food intolerance is the body’s response to any uneasy or incompatible food, leading to indigestion or irritation of the digestive system. As a result, the body’s capacity to digest the food reduces, leading to signs and symptoms.

To understand food intolerance, you must know that it is not as sudden as an allergy and takes time to surface. Managing food intolerance is a slow process, too, needing you to eliminate certain food items from the diet. The doctor may also administer some light medications for any potentially harmful intolerance symptoms to subside.

Long-term plans for food exclusion are among the best ways to counter intolerance to certain food items in your day-to-day life. Common food items causing intolerance in the body include wheat, gluten, and milk, along with certain vegetables and fruits. You must have commonly heard of the term ‘lactose intolerance,’ which is the body’s intolerance to lactose present in milk and milk products, leading to gastrointestinal discomfort. Some common symptoms of food intolerance in your body include the following.

  1. Constipation, cramps, bloating, and similar symptoms in the stomach
  2. Redness or inflammation of the skin
  3. Acidity and heartburn
  4. Excessive dryness of the skin
  5. Acne and pimples
  6. Headaches
  7. Mood swings and irritability

Primary Points of Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

Some common points of difference between a food allergy and food intolerance are listed below for a better understanding of the two conditions.

1. Biological systems impacted

The body’s immunity is the biological system that impacts/leads to allergic reactions to a certain food when in close contact. In the case of intolerance to food, chemicals produced in the digestive system are primarily responsible for the symptomatic reactions. Depending on the chemical composition of the body’s physiology, any healthy food consumed can cause intolerance symptoms.

2 .Causes

In the case of a food allergy, your body’s immune system tries to protect it from certain food items that it considers a threat to the overall health. An allergy can be very specific to individuals based on the allergenic behaviour of such food.

Apart from food consumption, even the smell or touch of certain food can cause allergic reactions in the body. Some other causes of food allergy include family history, age, maturity of the digestive system, and asthma.

The body’s Intolerance to food is, however, typically caused due to the body’s inability to process or digest certain food due to the lack of necessary chemicals or enzymes. The presence of specific chemicals in such food or the presence of food additives can also be intolerance triggers.

Irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and sensitivity to dried fruits are identified as other reasons for intolerance to food.

3. Diagnosis

Food allergies are best diagnosed through dedicated blood tests, oral food tests, physical examinations of the skin, and tests based on food elimination. Additionally, the healthcare professional may inquire regarding your history of allergies, any family history of such conditions, etc.

The first and basic test is usually a blood test to detect the Immunoglobulin E levels. If the levels are abnormal, further allergy testing like Allergy panels may be needed.

There are now various tests available to detect food allergies like Allergy panel- Milk and milk products , Allergy panel- Fruits and other such tests. Apart from these basic blood tests like CBC, ESR may also be done to check certain abnormal parameters.

 Food intolerance is difficult to diagnose and most laboratories do not offer any test for it. Metropolis Healthcare Ltd. offers testing for food intolerance using protein array technology. Test has a comprehensive range and can detect IgG antibodies against 150 + foods.

4. Severity

A food allergy may or may not be severe depending on your body’s reaction to the allergen identified. However, in some cases, an allergen may lead to severe symptoms, such as diarrhoea, vomiting, asphyxiation, etc. Most of these symptoms appear shortly after coming in contact with such food, like in the following 2 hours. Comparatively, food intolerance leads to low severity symptoms, which often appear over 4-5 hours after food consumption.

5. Time taken for recovery

The recovery time from a food allergy often depends on the extent of exposure to such allergens and the severity of the symptoms observed. The higher the exposure and/or symptoms, the longer it takes to recover.

Under food intolerance, however, eliminating the identified food from your diet can lead to a muted response of the body to such intolerance, resulting in long-term recovery.

6. Treatment

Cases with mild symptoms of food allergy can be easily treated through antihistamine administration. Severe cases of allergy may need a more immediate, assertive, and aggressive response, such as hospitalisation or epinephrine injections. All these treatments must be done under the guidance of your doctor, though.

As per research reports, there does not exist any definitive cure for the treatment of intolerance to various food items. The best bet has been to eliminate intolerant food items from one’s diet.

Parting Thoughts

With this detailed insight regarding the differences between food allergy and food intolerance, you should be better able to distinguish between the two as per the symptoms, severity, food consumption, and such factors. You may watch out for either of them if you feel itchy, discomfort, rashes, or any such symptoms after consuming a specific food.

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