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Do food sensitivities really exist? What is the difference between a food allergy, a food sensitivity and a food intolerance?

April 22, 2017

Physical reactions to certain foods are common, but most are

caused by a food intolerance rather than a food allergy. A food

intolerance can cause some of the same signs and symptoms as

a food allergy, so people often confuse the two.

A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects

numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms.

In some cases, an allergic reaction to a food can be severe or life-
threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally

less serious and often limited to digestive problems.

If you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small

amounts of the offending food without trouble. You may also be

able to prevent a reaction. For example, if you have lactose

intolerance, you may be able to drink lactose-free milk or take

lactase enzyme pills (Lactaid) to aid digestion.

 

Causes of food intolerance include:

 

Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food.

Lactose intolerance is a common example.

Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can cause

cramping, constipation and diarrhea.

Food poisoning. Toxins such as bacteria in spoiled food can

cause severe digestive symptoms.

Sensitivity to food additives. For example, sulfites used to

preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine can trigger

asthma attacks in sensitive people.

Recurring stress or psychological factors. Sometimes the

mere thought of a food may make you sick. The reason is not

fully understood.

 

Celiac disease. Celiac disease has some features of a true

food allergy because it involves the immune system. However,

symptoms are mostly gastrointestinal, and people with celiac

disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis. This chronic digestive

condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in

wheat and other grains.

If you have a reaction after eating a particular food, see your

doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food

allergy.

If you have a food allergy, you may be at risk of a life-threatening

allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) — even if past reactions have been

mild. Learn how to recognize a severe allergic reaction and know

what to do if one occurs. You may need to carry an emergency

epinephrine shot (EpiPen, Auvi-Q, others) for emergency self-
treatment.

If you have a food intolerance, your doctor may recommend steps

to aid digestion of certain foods or to treat the underlying condition causing your reaction.

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