What’s the Difference Between Food Intolerance and a Food Allergy?

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What is the difference between food intolerance and food allergies? Many people are unsure of the answer to this question, but it’s actually a straightforward distinction.

Food intolerance or food sensitivity is when your body has difficulty digesting certain foods, usually due to an enzyme deficiency. While a food allergy is when your immune system creates an antibody in response to a specific type of food that you eat or drink.

Contrary to food allergies, food intolerances are usually less serious and often manifest themselves in digestive problems. On the other hand, food allergies could result in hives, swelling, or more serious symptoms.

Let’s look at the main differences between the two in more detail.

Food Intolerance Causes

Food sensitivities are not life-threatening, says Sherry Farzan, MD, allergist and immunologist with North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. They’re caused by an inability to process or digest food.

Most food intolerances are caused by a lack of enzymes (amylase) or a sensitivity to certain chemicals.

Food intolerances are more common than allergies, and they don’t involve the immune system. Foods commonly associated with food intolerance include: milk, gluten, food colorings and preservatives, sulfites, other compounds, such as caffeine and fructose

Food Intolerance Symptoms

Unlike food allergies, most of the symptoms of intolerance are all digestive-related. These can include:

  • Bloating
  • Stomach pain or cramps
  • Diarrhea, constipation, gas, and nausea.
  • Gas and stomach upset after eating certain foods
  • Nausea with vomiting
  • Diarrhea when eating the wrong types of carbohydrates (sugars and starches)

Food intolerance symptoms usually occur within half an hour of eating food to which the person is intolerant, says HealthLine.

Food Allergies

Unlike food intolerances, a true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that can affect the organs in the body. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 million Americans have an allergy of some kind. Food allergies are estimated to affect 4% – 6% of children and 4% of adults.

Food allergies can be fatal. In extreme cases, ingesting or even touching a small amount of the allergen can cause a severe reaction.

Food Allergy symptoms

The symptoms can vary depending on the specific food that’s triggering them, but they typically include:

  • Hives
  • A rash or eczema breakouts (due to an increase in histamines)
  • Swelling of lips and face from congestion triggered by a runny nose.
  • Burning mouth syndrome due to vomiting
  • Itching
  • Anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing, wheezing, dizziness, and death
  • Digestive symptoms

Be sure to contact your doctor to accurately determine and diagnose whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy. They should be able to provide you with tests and treatment if needed.