According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), 4% of adults and 8% of children in the United States are allergic to one or more kinds of food. That might seem low given all the recent attention given to things like celiac disease, gluten free diets, and the rising incidence of food allergies by the media. This is due in part to a misunderstanding of the difference between a food allergy is and a food sensitivity or intolerance.
Food allergies occur when your immune system treats a food, like shellfish, as though it is dangerous, like a germ, and responds by creating antibodies to fight the perceived invader. This process also releases histamine into your bloodstream which is responsible for the varied reactions that can result. For some people, the symptoms are mild like a runny nose or itchy eyes but for others, the reaction can be life threatening.
Food sensitivities or intolerances are much more common than food allergies, although it can be difficult to differentiate between the two because the symptoms experienced may be similar. The primary differences between food allergies and food intolerances are the immune system’s response; no antibodies are created if it isn’t an allergy, and the possibility of anaphylaxis, which only exists with an allergy. Simply said, while the milder symptoms of both can be similar, when it’s a food intolerance your body isn’t fighting the food as if it is an invader and you cannot die.
While it is important to know the difference between allergy and intolerance because of the disparity in severity, many of the signs and symptoms are very similar. If you suspect you or someone in your family is having a negative reaction to something they are eating, start by discussing your concerns with their doctor. While diagnosis of food allergies and intolerances can be tricky, your doctor can help you determine the best course of action for determining if a food allergy or intolerance is causing your symptoms or if it is some other medical condition.
Here are the most common signs that the food you are eating may not be agreeing with you.
Food allergies can cause an itching sensation in your mouth, on your lips, or on your skin. Some people develop a rash that can also be itchy.
Swelling of the lips, mouth, throat, tongue and face may indicate an allergic reaction. Swelling can also occur in other areas of the body or as part of a rash or hive reaction.
3. Gastrointestinal Distress
Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, cramping, and bloating can all indicate you are having a food- based reaction.
Breaking out in a rash or hives with or without other symptoms can indicate an allergy.
Shortness of breath, wheezing, nasal congestion, and throat swelling/constriction can all make it difficult to breathe and may indicate a food allergy or intolerance.
6. Dizziness or Fainting
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded and/or fainting can also indicate the presence of a food allergy or intolerance. As this can be brought on by a rapid drop in blood pressure which would indicate a serious reaction, it needs to be treated as if it is an anaphylactic reaction.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can cause very serious, sometimes life-threatening symptoms. If you suspect someone is having an anaphylactic reaction you need to call 911 and get immediate emergency attention. The signs associated with anaphylaxis are:
- Airway constriction and tightening
- Throat swelling that impacts breathing
- Severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, loss of consciousness
- Is it Good to Go Gluten Free? (fillyourplate.org)
- What’s in Your Dinner? Raising Awareness About Food Allergies (fillyourplate.org)
- ‘Tis the Season for Sharing at a Potluck (fillyourplate.org)