What is the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and a Food Allergy?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Food allergies may manifest as hives.
Food allergies may manifest as hives.

While some people assume that food allergies and food intolerances are the same, that is not the case. Each condition is somewhat unique, although in both situations the individual suffering with the ailment is likely to experience mild to severe discomfort. Here is how to tell the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy.

The distinguishing characteristic of a food allergy is that the allergic reaction involves a negative reaction that triggers an immune system response. When the individual is allergic rather than simply intolerant to a protein source, the reaction is immediate and often debilitating. Allergy symptoms tend to include outward signs such as inflammation, congestion in the lungs and trachea, or an outbreak of hives. With a food allergy, seeking medical attention at once is imperative, since the reaction may be strong enough to place the life of the individual in danger.

Itching of the face, mouth, neck and throat are common symptoms of a food allergy that are not present in a food intolerance.
Itching of the face, mouth, neck and throat are common symptoms of a food allergy that are not present in a food intolerance.

By contrast, a food intolerance does not trigger an immediate reaction by the immune system. The outward symptoms may be minimal or even undetectable at first. One good example of a food intolerance is the inability to digest the sugar content found in milk. This condition is known as lactose intolerance. The inability to digest the sugar can lead to a buildup in the body that can eventually cause problems with the kidneys. At the same time, a food intolerance of this type limits the amount of nutrients an individual can obtain from food consumption.

One of the more common outward symptoms of food intolerance is recurring nausea and a general sense of feeling unwell. The discomfort tends to fade after a short period of time and is not likely to occur again until the individual consumes food that the body cannot tolerate.

Identifying a food intolerance is somewhat more complicated, in that it is almost impossible to determine the source of the discomfort without running medical tests. Detecting the possibility of a food allergy is often an easier process, since the symptoms tend to manifest shortly after consumption and may result in a severe health crisis. However, it is important to seek the services of a qualified healthcare professional in order to determine the exact nature of the allergy or intolerance.

For people with a food allergy or food intolerance, the most common approach to treatment is to not consume the food that causes the adverse reaction. Depending on the nature of the adverse reaction, medication may help to minimize or eliminate the symptoms associated with the allergy or intolerance.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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    • Food allergies may manifest as hives.
      Food allergies may manifest as hives.
    • Itching of the face, mouth, neck and throat are common symptoms of a food allergy that are not present in a food intolerance.
      Itching of the face, mouth, neck and throat are common symptoms of a food allergy that are not present in a food intolerance.