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Food allergy or food sensitivity?

Physical reactions to food are common, and how your body reacts can help indicate if you have a food allergy or sensitivity.

August 11, 2022

Food allergy or food sensitivity?

About 1% of all adults have a food allergy and studies show that number is growing. Many more people have a food sensitivity, also called a food intolerance. Know the difference and be particularly aware if you have a food allergy.

Food allergy

When you’re allergic to a food, your body recognizes that product as harmful and mounts an immune system response by creating antibodies. Then, every time you eat that food, even a tiny amount, your body will have an allergic response that can cause a range of symptoms from mild to life threatening. The most common food allergies are peanuts, shellfish, nuts, eggs, and milk. If you’re allergic to a food, your best bet is to avoid that food completely. 

Common food allergy symptoms include:

  • Hives, itchiness, and swelling of the skin
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain

The most serious food allergy symptom is anaphylaxis. It comes on quickly and can be fatal, causing breathing problems, dizziness, and even loss of consciousness. For someone in anaphylactic shock, immediate medical care is critical.

Food sensitivity

If you have a food sensitivity, you’ll likely have digestive issues because the food causes irritation in the digestive system. If you’re sensitive to a food, you might be able to eat small amounts of it occasionally without upset, but you may experience symptoms if you have a large portion or eat the food frequently. Lactose, found in dairy products and milk, is the most common food intolerance. About 10% of Americans are lactose intolerant.

Food sensitivity symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Cramps
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability

Determining the difference

If you don’t feel well after you eat a specific food, how do you know if it’s a food allergy or a food sensitivity? First, pay attention to the symptoms. If they’re mainly digestive, it’s likely a food intolerance. If you get itchy skin rashes, swelling or more severe symptoms, it’s probably an allergy.

The best bet is to keep a food diary and note when you experience discomfort after eating a specific food. Then make an appointment with your doctor. They may recommend food allergy testing or an elimination diet where you avoid eating suspect foods for a time to see if your symptoms clear up.

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