If you have painful or unpleasant physical reactions to certain foods, you might be experiencing a food allergy, food intolerance, or food sensitivity. While all three issues can cause significant health challenges, they can be managed with careful prevention and treatment strategies.
It’s quite common to experience irritating, unpleasant, or painful physical symptoms after consuming certain foods. Maybe you develop heartburn after eating spicy foods or citrus, or you feel sluggish after a rich meal. However, if you have serious physical reactions after eating a particular food, you might believe you have a food allergy.
What are the Differences Between Food Allergies and Food Intolerances?
Although it is entirely possible that you’re experiencing an allergic response to an ingredient in your food, it is also highly likely that you could have a food intolerance, an autoimmune disorder, or food sensitivity. These conditions can trigger a variety of symptoms, and it’s important to recognize how the different conditions affect the body.
A food allergy occurs when the immune system misidentifies a specific food as harmful, leading to an Immunoglobulin E (IgE) overresponse that can trigger potentially dangerous symptoms.
Food allergies can cause multiple symptoms that can vary from person to person. Common food allergy symptoms may include the following:
- Abdominal cramps or diarrhea
- Anaphylaxis (a potentially deadly allergic reaction)
- Difficulty breathing
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Itching or tingling sensation in the mouth
- Nausea or vomiting
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
There are a lot of people who have uncomfortable physical responses to certain foods, but while some might be caused by allergies, most are the result of a food intolerance.
Because an intolerance to certain ingredients in food can trigger similar symptoms to food allergies, confusing the two conditions is quite common.
Food intolerance does not involve the immune response and is caused by a problem with the digestive system. The most commonly experienced form of food intolerance is lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which processes dairy lactose.
Unlike food allergies, food intolerance symptoms are typically limited to the digestive system. Common intolerance symptoms may include:
- Bloating or gas
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Heartburn or indigestion
- Nausea or vomiting
While food intolerance can be extremely uncomfortable, it is not life-threatening.
Autoimmune Disorder/Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes a severe inflammatory response when gluten protein from barley flour, rye flour, or wheat flour is consumed. This response causes the small intestine to fail to absorb nutrients, a condition called malabsorption.
Celiac disease symptoms include the following:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Abdominal distension
- Stomach pain
Celiac disease is categorized into two subgroups, according to the World Gastroenterology Organization:
- Classical Celiac Disease: Classical celiac disease leads to malabsorption symptoms, which include diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia.
- Non-Classical Celiac Disease: Non-classical celiac disease causes abdominal pain, discomfort, and constipation without indications of malabsorption.
Celiac disease is not considered an allergy – people with celiac disease are not in immediate danger if they eat gluten once. Over time, however, consistent gluten exposure can cause significant digestive distress, potentially leading to malnutrition.
Some people develop issues that are not common to food allergies, autoimmune disorders, or food intolerance. Such issues are thought to be related to food sensitivity.
Food sensitivities are often considered synonymous with food intolerances, but the related symptoms aren’t necessarily similar. Reported food sensitivity symptoms can include the following:
- Joint pain
- Neurological symptoms (brain fog)
How are Food Allergies, Food Intolerances, and Food Sensitivities Diagnosed?
Determining if a person has a food allergy or food intolerance involves a comprehensive evaluation by a healthcare professional. The diagnosis may include the following steps:
- Medical History: The healthcare provider will evaluate your symptoms, when the symptoms occur, and any family history of allergies or intolerances.
- Physical Exam: The provider will examine the skin for signs of an allergic reaction, such as hives or swelling.
- Food Allergy Testing: Allergy blood tests, such as skin-prick tests or IgE blood tests, may be conducted to measure the presence of allergy antibodies to specific foods.
- Elimination Diet: In cases where the specific trigger food is not clear, an elimination diet may be recommended. An elimination diet involves avoiding certain foods and slowly reintroducing them to identify the culprit.
Treatment and Prevention
Treatment for food allergies involves strict avoidance of the trigger food and, in some cases, medication or epinephrine injections for severe allergic reactions. Food intolerances can be managed by avoiding the trigger food and following the recommended diet.
Preventing debilitating reactions to foods involves taking the following precautions:
- Read food labels carefully to avoid accidental ingestion of allergens.
- Learn safe food handling practices to avoid cross-contamination.
- Carry emergency medications, such as epinephrine auto-injectors, in case of a severe allergic reaction.
If you are struggling with uncomfortable reactions to foods, please don’t hesitate to contact the helpful representatives at Allergy Partners to schedule a comprehensive evaluation.