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Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance: Know the Difference

* Disclaimer: this is an educational article only. Just Allergy Things is not liable to give medical advice. Please contact your doctor/allergist if you suspect you have either of these conditions. *

“Oh, I can’t eat that,” I said on a school trip, as I was handed a small egg sandwich as a snack. “Are you allergic?” I was asked. I wasn’t, yet eggs made my stomach gurgle and groan, causing painful acid reflux. Did that mean I was allergic? This phenomenon confused both myself and my teachers, and after consulting my mother, she informed me that my stomach simply did not like eggs very much.

As a teenager, I now understand what my mother had very simply explained: I had a food intolerance to eggs. A food intolerance refers to an inability or difficulty for the body to digest certain types of food, such as avocados or eggs. Common foods people can be intolerant to include gluten and caffeine. When one ingests a food they are intolerant to, side effects can include vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, and may result in an itchy mouth as well.

A “[f]ood allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food,” says Mayo Clinic. For some, reactions “can trigger signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives or swollen airways. In some people, a food allergy can cause severe symptoms or even a life-threatening [allergic] reaction known as anaphylaxis.” Food intolerances can mimic food allergies, and vice-versa, depending on the severity of one’s intolerances and allergies.

How can you tell the difference? According to Mayo Clinic, “a true food allergy affects the immune system. Even small amounts of the offending food can trigger a range of symptoms, which can be severe or life-threatening.” On the other hand, food intolerances target the digestive system. Therefore, reactions to food-intolerances will mainly be focused on the stomach area, while reactions to food allergies will occur anywhere, both inside and outside of the body. If unsure, it is always best to consult a medical professional about any questions you may have. Simple tests can be performed to evaluate whether a person is allergic or intolerant to a particular substance and ensure that you know what foods to look out for.

Both food intolerances and food allergies can be difficult to cope with. However, with a good grasp of how to handle your medical condition you can properly safeguard your own wellbeing.


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