If you’ve ever had a surprising physical reaction to a food you’ve enjoyed your entire life, you’re not alone. According to Consumer Reports, food allergies and intolerances can strike at any age. Although many folks outgrow food allergies they had as children, these same pesky issues can return later in life. On top of that, it’s possible for people to develop totally new food allergies as they get older — as well as food intolerances. But how do you know the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance? And will you ever be able to enjoy your beloved meal again? Here's the short answer: It depends on the situation.
Food Allergy Vs. Intolerance
It’s no wonder a lot of people confuse food allergies with intolerances. After all, they’re both abnormal responses to food products, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They both can unexpectedly appear at any time. And of course, both are extremely unpleasant. That said, they’re both triggered by completely different things — and it’s important to recognize the distinction so you can get the proper treatment as soon as possible. Remember: Always talk to a doctor if you suspect you have any food allergy or intolerance.
A food allergy is triggered by your body’s immune system, according to Medline Plus. It's basically an overreactive response to something it shouldn't even be reacting to in the first place — like certain foods. When this allergy is triggered in people, they have an overproduction of antibodies, which indirectly trigger the production of histamines and start the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Signs of a food allergy can include symptoms such as itching or swelling in your mouth, hives, vomiting, tightening of the throat, trouble breathing, and a sudden drop in blood pressure. In adults, some of the most common food allergies include fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts (such as walnuts). Although many people have mild allergies, some folks can have an extremely serious reaction called anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening. This is especially risky for people who have peanut allergies.
A food intolerance (sometimes called a "food sensitivity") is a bit of a different story. Unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance does not involve the body’s immune system, according to My HealtheVet. Instead, it involves the way that the specific food is broken down by your body. You probably know someone with lactose intolerance, or intolerance to the sugar lactase, which is found in milk and milk-based food products. That means that the enzyme needed to break down the sugar is having some trouble doing so in that person's body. This is why signs of food intolerance tend to be gastrointestinal — such as abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
As different as food allergies and food intolerances are, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s important you address either one of them with a health professional so you can treat it properly. In some cases, treatment may involve medication or medical equipment. In other cases, you may need to eliminate certain foods completely.
Stay healthy out there!