In the world today where the term “food allergy” is part of everyday discourse, it makes you wonder if that many Americans really have so many different food allergies. According to research, about 32 million people in the United States have food allergies, and that number includes more than 5 million children under 18 years old. If you think you could be one of the millions who suffer from a food allergy, it may simply be a food intolerance — a much more common problem.

At the integrated medical practice of Kimberly Shine, MD, in Pasadena, California, you can find out if you have a food allergy or a food intolerance. Not sure of the difference? We explain what you need to know here.

Food allergies cause a reaction from your immune system

The symptoms of food allergies and food intolerances are sometimes similar, but the difference is that a true food allergy causes a system-wide reaction in your body. This reaction to a particular food begins with your immune system and affects several different organs, causing a wide range of unpleasant symptoms. For some people, an allergic reaction to food can be severe, or even life-threatening.

Food allergies arise from extreme sensitivity to proteins found in different foods. If you come from a family that has food allergies, you’re more than likely to have similar allergies, too.

If you do have a true food allergy, you may not be able to eat it, touch it, smell it, or have even the smallest traces of it near you without experiencing some kind of physical reaction. That’s because your body produces antibodies to fend off the perceived edible invader.

Symptoms to foods you are allergic to may include:

  • Hives or a skin rash
  • Itching and swelling of the face, lips, and throat
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Chest pain
  • Respiratory problems, like difficulty breathing
  • Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis is a serious, sudden onset of symptoms. If not treated immediately with an epinephrine injection, anaphylaxis may be fatal. People with an allergy this severe typically carry an EpiPen, so they can receive an immediate injection of the necessary medication as soon as the allergic reaction occurs.

Food intolerances cause a reaction in your digestive system

Unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance primarily takes place in your digestive system. When your body isn’t able to break down the enzymes, additives, or naturally occurring chemicals in the foods you eat, you may experience unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms, including:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Headaches
  • Irritability

The most common food intolerance is lactose, which is found in dairy products. Food additives and preservatives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), sulfites, and some naturally occurring chemicals are also common food intolerances.

How do you tell the difference between a food allergy and intolerance?

If your reaction isn’t severe, and one of the common symptoms, such as nausea or diarrhea, it may be hard to tell whether you have an allergy or an intolerance to certain foods. Unlike food allergies, though, if you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat a small amount of the offending food.

For example, if you’re lactose intolerant, as many people are, you might be able to have one or two pieces of cheese every now and then without too much discomfort. However, if you order a bowl of cheese dip when you’re out to dinner, you may pay for it later with some very unpleasant digestive issues until the lactose is out of your system.

If you’re experiencing frequent digestive issues or allergy symptoms, it’s best to get the problem checked out. Dr. Shine offers allergy testing to identify allergens and works with you to develop a treatment plan for both food allergies and food intolerances.

Take the first step to feel better and improve your overall health today. Call our friendly team at 626-225-2775, or request an appointment online.

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