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What is the Difference Between Food Allergies & Food Intolerance


It isn’t uncommon for some people to have physical reactions to certain foods, but these reactions are frequently confused as a food allergy, rather than a food intolerance. The symptoms can be similar, which can lead to some confusion, but these two conditions often have very different treatments. Here are the differences you should know.

What Are Food Allergies?

Food allergies are an immune system reaction to a specific food or compound in a food. It can affect multiple organs in the body and cause a wide range of symptoms. These symptoms can even be life-threatening, and allergens need to be seriously avoided.

If you have a food allergy, exposure can trigger anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, even if previous reactions have been mild. If you have a food allergy, your physician may prescribe an emergency epinephrine shot that you should carry with you. This is commonly called an EpiPen, but there are other brands as well.

Mild to moderate allergic reaction symptoms include:

  • Itchy mouth or ear canal
  • Odd taste in the mouth
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nasal congestion or a runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Slight, dry cough
  • Redness of the skin, especially around the mouth or eyes
  • Hives or itchy, reddened patches of skin
  • Eczema flare or dry, itchy rashes

Severe symptoms of an allergic reaction can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Turning blue
  • Confusion, weakness, or passing out, indicating a drop in blood pressure
  • Chest pain
  • Weak pulse
  • Anxiety
  • Shock

What Are Food Intolerances?

A food intolerance is far less severe than an allergic reaction, but it still can be quite uncomfortable. This condition can be caused by several factors. Frequently, those with an intolerance can handle a very small amount of the food without becoming ill, however, there are some people who are especially sensitive and cannot handle any amount of the food.

Food intolerance can occur when your body does not produce a needed enzyme to break down a certain food. This is the case when you are lactose intolerant, which is why you can still consume lactose-free milk, or take an enzyme pill to aid in digestion. It can also be the result of a sensitivity to certain food additives, such as sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods, and wine.

Your food intolerance can also be caused by other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). You may experience chronic cramping, constipation, or diarrhea after eating certain irritating foods. Recurring stress and psychological factors can also make it difficult to eat and may cause a reaction.

Celiac disease is a specific food intolerance to gluten that can be diagnosed by a small intestine biopsy. If you have Celiac disease, eating gluten will damage the lining of the intestine which can get progressively worse every time gluten is ingested. Celiac disease can cause a spectrum of symptoms including uncomfortable gas, constipation, diarrhea, and severe intestinal damage. In addition to damaging the small intestine, gluten can also cause different systemic reactions such as gluten ataxia.

Symptoms of a food intolerance are:

  • Bloating and gas
  • Migraines of headaches
  • A cough
  • A runny nose
  • The general feeling of unwellness
  • Stomach ache
  • Hives
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Brain fog or memory issues
  • Year-round allergy symptoms
  • Neurologic symptoms like difficulty walking or abnormal gait

Diagnosing a Food Allergy or Food Intolerance

Depending on your symptoms, we may help you determine whether you have an allergy or an intolerance. We may also conduct allergy testing to determine what treatment is correct for your symptoms. If you have an intolerance, we will advise you in foods to avoid or ways to aid digestion. If we determines you have an allergy, we may prescribe an emergency epinephrine shot.

At the Arizona Center for Alternative Medicine, our integrative medicine doctors can diagnose and help you understand the root of your discomfort. We can advise you about treatments, lifestyle changes, and other options to reduce your symptoms. We may also prescribe low-dose antigen therapy which are a form of allergy shots that are given every 8 weeks, rather than weekly like standard allergy shots. At our Scottsdale integrative medicine center, we blend the most effective techniques from traditional and alternative medicine for a holistic approach to your care.

Schedule an appointment today to learn more. Call (480) 240-2600.