There are many terms used to describe adverse reactions to food, and it can be confusing to understand the difference between them. Here, we will define food allergy, intolerance and sensitivity and explain the key differences between them.
What Is a Food Allergy
A food allergy is an immune reaction to a food protein that causes symptoms such as hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and anaphylaxis. The body mistakes the food protein as something harmful and produces antibodies to attack it. These antibodies cause the release of chemicals, such as histamine, which leads to the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Most people with food allergies have symptoms that occur shortly after eating the offending food, such as itching or swelling in the mouth, hives, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. More severe reactions can cause swelling of the throat and airway, which can lead to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition.
There are eight major food allergens that are responsible for the majority of food allergies: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and crustacean shellfish. These allergens are present in many foods and can be difficult to avoid.
What Is Food Intolerance
Food Intolerance is similar but not as serious as allergies. This type of reaction can lead to discomfort and illnesses. Food intolerance is not an immune response to food but is caused by the body’s inability to digest certain kinds of food.
There are many different types of food intolerance, but the most common is lactose intolerance. This is when the body cannot digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. People with lactose intolerance may experience bloating, gas, diarrhea, and stomach pain after eating dairy products.
Other common food intolerances include gluten intolerance and MSG intolerance. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and people with gluten intolerance may experience gastrointestinal problems after eating foods that contain gluten. MSG is a food additive that can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea in some people.
What Is Food Sensitivity
Food insensitivity, also known as food intolerance, is the mildest form of an immune reaction to food. Like allergies, food insensitivity can affect multiple organs and systems in the body. However, the symptoms of food insensitivity are usually less severe and may not be immediately apparent.
Food insensitivity is thought to be caused by an intolerance to certain proteins or chemicals in food. The body may produce antibodies to these proteins or chemicals, which can lead to inflammation and other symptoms.
Common symptoms of food insensitivity include digestive problems, headaches, fatigue, and skin rashes. Some people may also experience anxiety or depression.
What Are the Available Treatment Options for Food Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivity
The first step in managing any food allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance is to identify the offending food or foods. This can be done through a process of elimination, in which potential allergens are removed from the diet one at a time, or through food allergy testing. Once the allergen has been identified, the next step is to avoid it.
There are also a number of treatments that can be used to manage the symptoms of food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances. These include:
- Antihistamines: These medications can help to relieve the itchiness, swelling, and other symptoms of an allergic reaction.
- Corticosteroids: These medications can be taken orally or injected, and can help to reduce the severity of an allergic reaction.
- Epinephrine: People use this medication in severe allergic reactions, and it can help to reduce swelling and improve breathing.
- Avoidance: The best way to treat a food allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance is to avoid the offending food or foods. This may require making changes to your diet, and can be difficult if the allergen is found in many common foods.
- Allergy shots: If avoidance is not possible or does not adequately relieve symptoms, allergy shots may be recommended. These shots expose the person to small amounts of the allergen, and can help to reduce the severity of reactions.
So, to recap, a food allergy is an immune reaction to a food protein, a food sensitivity is a non-immune reaction to a food, and a food intolerance is a reaction to a food that does not involve the immune system.
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