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Food Intolerances versus Food Allergies: The Differences

In reality, there is a massive distinction between the two in both the effects the conditions have on the body and the treatment required.

Many people have a reaction to certain food and assume they are allergic to it, in most cases they are not, they have a food intolerance.

It might sound like a one-word change is not overly important if food makes a person sick, it makes them sick and that’s that. In reality, there is a massive distinction between the two in both the effects the conditions have on the body and the treatment required.

Food Intolerance

If you suffer from a food intolerance the symptoms appear sometime after you have ingested the offending food, not right after eating. Intolerances are caused by enzyme deficiencies which means that some part of the food cannot be properly digested. Intolerances can also be caused by some chemicals that are present in food such as histamines, salicylates, and food additives.

In cases of food intolerance, many people can eat a small amount of the offending food without having a reaction at all.

Adverse reactions caused by food intolerances are unpleasant, they can be extremely unpleasant and the reaction can last for a considerable time but they are rarely if ever life-threatening. According to the American Acadamy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the main symptoms of food intolerances are intestinal gas, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Many foods can cause intolerances, some of the common ones are:

  • beans
  • cabbage
  • citrus fruit
  • grains containing gluten
  • milk (lactose)
  • processed meats

Food Allergies

Food allergy symptoms appear almost immediately after ingesting the offending food. In cases of food allergy, the problem is caused by a protein which causes an immune response. These proteins are called allergens, and in a sensitive person eating even a small amount of the food to which they are allergic can provoke a severe response such as anaphylaxis.

When anaphylaxis occurs, the body reacts badly to an allergen, which could be some kind of food, insect bite, venom, or medication. The body treats the substance as it would a harmful bacterium or virus – a threat to health. The reaction may occur straight away, or within hours. In very rare cases, the patient may react days after coming into contact with the allergen(s).

When an allergen gets into a susceptible individual, massive amounts of histamine and some other chemicals are released into the bloodstream. Histamine triggers an inflammatory response which is part of the immune response to foreign pathogens. It causes:

  • Dilation of blood vessels, which can result in a sudden drop in blood pressure and narrowing of airways
  • Leaking of blood vessels which leads to edema (swelling) in surrounding tissue. When blood vessels leak blood pressure drops

If signs or symptoms are more than mild, the individual should receive medical help as soon as possible. The patient may be given an adrenalin injection, and another one within about ten minutes if there is no improvement. In some cases antihistamines and steroids may be administered.

An individual with an anaphylactic reaction may experience dizziness and malaise. If blood pressure drops suddenly they can pass out. There may be breathing difficulties and wheezing if the airways become constricted. The following signs and symptoms may also be present:

  • An unusual, perhaps metallic taste in the mouth
  • Diarrhea
  • Fainting
  • Fever
  • Heightened apprehension and anxiety
  • Hives
  • Itching, which may become severe
  • Itchy eyes, which can become red
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • The heart rate may change
  • There may be swelling of the feet, hands, lips, eyes, and even genitals
  • Vomiting
  • Severe breathing difficulties and/or a serious drop in blood pressure can cause shock and lead to death.
  • A reaction that occurs straight after contact and gets worse quickly should be treated as a medical emergency. (source)

Many substances can cause an allergic reaction. Some of the most common foods that do so are:

– eggs
– fish
– groundnuts (peanuts)
– milk
– nuts from trees (Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts)
– shellfish
– wheat

It’s possible that some people will show some symptoms of both conditions, and in these cases, clinical diagnosis is more difficult it’s but essential to know which condition is occurring so that an appropriate treatment regimen can be instigated.



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This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on January 24th, 2015