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When you think of Food Allergy and Food Sensitivity, images of hives, vomiting, and diarrhea probably come to mind. But what is the difference between an allergy and a food sensitivity, and how can you tell the two apart?
If you’ve ever suffered from an allergic reaction, you know that food can be an irritant. And if you’ve ever been sensitized to food and subsequently reacted to it, you may also know that sensitivity can be a milder form of allergy.
The two are different but related. And both can have a significant impact on your quality of life.
Let’s explore the difference between food allergy and food sensitivity, as well as the best ways to manage each.
Food Allergy and Food Sensitivity
A food allergy is an adverse immune response to a certain food. It is not the same as food intolerance.
An allergic reaction occurs when your body mounts an immune response to a food, mistakenly identifying it as a pathogen.
This can cause your immune system to produce antibodies to fight the allergen. If you then consume that allergin, your body will respond as if it were again challenged by the real thing.
You may experience a variety of symptoms depending on the allergen, such as skin rashes, an itchy rash, skin redness, hives, or even anaphylaxis, a severe form of allergic reaction.
Allergens are substances that cause an allergic reaction. They are usually proteins, but can also be other substances such as pollen, house dust mite, dander, or medications such as penicillin. When you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakenly believes that a particular food is harmful. As a result, it produces antibodies that attempt to fight off the food.
The next time you are exposed to that food, these antibodies can release a number of chemicals, such as histamine, which cause allergic symptoms.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction can range from mild to severe. The most common food allergy signs and symptoms include:
- Tingling or itching in the mouth
The most common allergens are:
- Animals: Dogs, cats, horses, and birds are common animal allergens.
- Plants: pollens from trees, weeds, grass, and weeds; and mold from indoor and outdoor flora
- Food: peanuts, tree nuts (e.g. almonds, pine nuts), other nuts, fish, shellfish, sesame, and legumes (e.g. peanuts, soy, and legumes)
Food sensitivity is the body’s response to a food, rather than an adverse immune reaction to it. Symptoms can vary from mild digestive discomfort to anaphylaxis but are not always consistent with those of an allergy.
An individual can be sensitive to one food but not necessarily allergic to it.
The differences between food allergy and food sensitivity are not always clear-cut and often depend on the individual and the circumstances surrounding their reaction.
Some of the key differences between the two are:
- Allergies are triggered by the introduction of an allergen into the body. Food sensitivities, on the other hand, are usually the result of an already-existing immune response to a certain food.
- Allergic reactions usually occur within minutes of consuming the allergen, while food sensitivity reactions can take hours or even days to develop.
- food allergy is an immune-mediated adverse reaction to a food protein, while food sensitivity causes symptoms by other mechanisms, such as irritation or inflammation. This distinction is important because a person can have an allergy to many more types of foods than they can be sensitive to.
There are some good reasons to visit a professional nutritionist or dietician when dealing with dietary allergies or sensitivities:
- The professional can recommend a specific test to determine a food allergy, if necessary. Many people assume they’re allergic to gluten, for example, and don’t realize it’s hard to get an accurate diagnosis without a blood test.
- The professional can guide you through the process of eliminating certain foods from your diet, and then reintroducing them to see if there’s a reaction. That can be difficult to do on your own.
- The professional can suggest alternative food sources (such as gluten-free bread made with rice flour) that might not have occurred to you.
- The professional can help you figure out how much of the problem food you actually need to avoid. For example, someone with lactose intolerance may only need to eliminate milk from their diet, rather than all dairy products.
For an individual to avoid having a food allergy, they must be aware of the food(s) to which they are allergic.
Here are some ways to manage a food allergy:
- Educate yourself about food allergies and their symptoms.
- Always carry an emergency Epi-pen with you in case of an allergic reaction.
- Educate your friends and family about your food allergy.
- Try to avoid social gatherings where food is being offered, and bring your own food if you are invited to a social gathering.
- Monitor your diet carefully to avoid accidentally consuming an allergin.
- Take an anti-allergic Rhinitis medication such as Singulair if your allergies are seasonal or triggered by spices.
For a person to be sensitive to a certain food, they must develop an immune response to it.
Some individuals are more likely to be sensitive to certain foods:
- Those with an intolerance may experience digestive problems when they consume large amounts of a particular food; or, may experience digestive problems when they consume large amounts of any food.
- People with lactose intolerance can experience abdominal cramps, bloating, and diarrhea when they consume large amounts of lactose-containing foods.
- Those with wheat or gluten allergies may develop a rash on their skin when they consume large amounts of wheat or gluten.
Both Food Allergy and Food Sensitivity can have a significant impact on your quality of life. While an allergy is an immune system response, sensitivity is a less serious digestive or immune system response. For many people, the symptoms of a food sensitivity or intolerance are less severe than those of a food allergy.
It’s important to remember that diagnosing and treating food sensitivities can be challenging. If you suspect you have a food sensitivity or intolerance, talk with your doctor. They can help determine the best way to manage your symptoms.