In a world where the number of kids with peanut allergies has tripled in the past 15 years, it’s no wonder so many people use the terms “allergies,” “sensitivities,” and “intolerances” interchangeably. However, there is a difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity or intolerance.
If you’re one of the 32 million Americans with food allergies, it’s important to know the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity. It could be a matter of life or death.
Food sensitivities are more common than food allergies
Do you feel sick to your stomach after you eat an ice cream cone or end up with gas and bloating after you eat broccoli? These are signs of a food sensitivity or intolerance, but not necessarily an allergy.
For many people, foods that contain lactose (like ice cream and other dairy) or natural sugars (like broccoli) trigger an intolerance in your digestive tract. This usually means your body can’t break down and digest certain foods.
If you have a lactose intolerance — the most common food intolerance — you most likely don’t have enough of the proper enzymes in your system to digest lactose. Therefore, you feel the effects as bloating, diarrhea, or an upset stomach.
You could have sensitivities to ingredients like caffeine or food preservatives and additives like MSG or artificial colors. Food sensitivities and intolerances trigger a digestive system response, whereas food allergies trigger an immune system response.
Food sensitivities are uncomfortable and unpleasant for your digestive tract, but they’re not life-threatening. Most people manage their food sensitivities by simply avoiding the ingredients that trigger symptoms.
Food allergies affect only about 1% of American adults
While food allergies are less common than food sensitivities and intolerances, allergies can be much more serious — even life-threatening. Food allergies trigger a response from your immune system, often in the form of a rash, hives, or swelling of the airways to your lungs. Food allergies can occur from exposure to even the smallest trace amounts of food and occur every time you eat or come into contact with that particular food.
If you have a food allergy, it’s because your body mistakes a specific ingredient — usually a protein — for a harmful substance and attempts to fight it off. The most common food allergies include:
Food allergies are typically hereditary, too. So if you have a family member with a shellfish or peanut allergy, chances are higher that you or your kids will have similar allergies.
You typically develop a food allergy after your first exposure to the food because your body thinks it’s harmful. The first time you eat a particular food that contains the offending protein, your body creates specific disease-fighting antibodies just for that protein.
The next time you eat that food, your body sends a rush of these antibodies to attack the invader. That’s when you break out in hives, you experience shortness of breath, or, in severe cases, your body goes into anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis is a serious and sudden drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness, and it can be fatal if you don’t receive immediate medical attention.
People with severe allergies often carry an epinephrine injector that can be used to quickly improve symptoms in the event of an allergic reaction before it becomes a life-threatening situation.
Allergies and sensitivities in a nutshell
Pardon the pun if you’re allergic to nuts, but we want to make it easy for you to understand how to tell if you or a member of your family has a food allergy or sensitivity. It’s often as simple as knowing the difference between how your body responds to a certain food.
If you have digestive issues almost every time you eat a bowl of ice cream or a piece of cheesecake, you’re probably lactose intolerant — sensitive to dairy. However, if you break out in a rash, have an asthma attack, or your tongue swells up every time you eat shrimp, it’s most likely a food allergy.
If you’re unsure about which foods trigger allergic or intolerant reactions, we can help. We offer nutritional testing, including food allergy and sensitivity testing so you can know which foods you may need to avoid completely. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org