May is Food Allergy Awareness Month and several efforts are being made toward greater public awareness of food allergies. With this awareness however has led to questioning the difference between a food allergy and intolerance. Maybe you experienced some degree of a reaction – sneezing, wheezing, rashes, brain fog, joint pain, nausea, bloating, diarrhea, or another symptom. This may have led you to believe you have a food allergy — and maybe you do. But it may also just be an intolerance.

So how are you supposed to know which is which?

The key is to understand the differences between the symptoms, so that you can be better prepared to handle them. When you have an allergy, your reaction and symptoms are likely to be much more severe and sometimes life-threatening. While symptoms of allergy and intolerance appear similar, the clear difference is how they affect your body. An allergy is caused by your immune system and may affect multiple organs. A food intolerance symptom is typically an isolated digestive issue.

Food Intolerance

What does it mean to have a food intolerance? Similar to an allergy, it refers to an abnormal response to a food that is not an allergic reaction. Over 30% of Americans believe that they have an intolerance to one or more foods. These responses take place in the digestive system where a person is not able to properly breakdown a food. There are a few causes of this, including enzyme deficiencies, sensitivity to food additives, or reactions to naturally occurring chemicals in foods. Symptoms of an intolerance can vary but are generally digestive related:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Cramping
  • Nausea

Allergic Reactions

Food allergy symptoms are much more intense on the body. Reactions can also occur within 30 minutes or up to two hours after eating. With a food allergy, the immune system overreacts to an ordinarily harmless food. Even a miniscule amount of food can be enough to trigger a reaction.

Symptoms of an allergy can be mild – itching, redness, hives, or swelling – or they can be much more severe. Respiratory symptoms may include coughing, wheezing, throat tightness, and chest tightness. The most serious type of allergic reaction is called “anaphylaxis” and may involve cardiac systems. Without immediate treatment like an epinephrine injection and expert care, anaphylaxis can be fatal.

At present there is no cure for food allergies and one can only prevent the symptoms by avoiding the allergenic food. After identifying the food to which the patient is sensitive, it should be removed from their diet. Patients with food allergies should be instructed to read the list of ingredients on the label of prepared foods before eating to ensure the allergen is not listed.

Apart from this, patients should be prepared to treat an unintentional exposure. This can include measures such as wearing a medical alert bracelet or necklace, carrying an auto-injector device, and also carrying relevant medicines for controlling mild allergic symptoms.