Food Allergy or Sensitivity

Learn the Differences Between an Allergy and a Sensitivity

A certain food may bother you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allergic to it. Sometimes, the problem is a food sensitivity, and sometimes it’s an intolerance. Does this sound confusing? Let’s clarify some of the basic facts about food allergies and sensitivities.

Allergies and sensitivities are different because of the way the body responds. For example, if you’re allergic to a food, your body’s response to that food causes a systemic allergic reaction. If you’re not allergic to the food but have a food sensitivity or intolerance, the food triggers a more digestive localized response.

Food sensitivities and intolerances are more common than allergies. Fortunately, they’re not life-threatening. While food sensitivity symptoms can vary, food intolerance affects the digestive system, causing gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and nausea. Rather than being caused by an allergic reaction, sensitivities and intolerances result from the body’s inability to digest a particular food.

Food sensitivity and intolerance are not immune-mediated. When food triggers an intolerance, it happens in your digestive tract. For instance, if you are lactose intolerant, your body can’t break down lactose, leading to digestion-related symptoms. Similarly, you may have a sensitivity or intolerance if you:

  • don’t have the right enzymes to digest certain foods
  • react to food additives or preservatives like sulfites, MSG, or artificial colors
  • are sensitive to chemical additives
  • are sensitive to sugars that are found in foods like broccoli, brussels sprouts, or onions.

An allergic response involves the immune system. The immune system defends your body against attackers like bacteria, fungi, or viruses. If your immune system identifies a protein in what you eat as one of these interlopers, it tries to fight it by producing antibodies. This causes allergic reactions like the common immunoglobulin E (IgE)- mediated response. IgEs are allergic antibodies that cause a reaction as soon as chemicals, like histamine from mast cells, are released.

Non-IgE-mediated food allergies involve activating other parts of the immune system. Symptoms of non-IgE reactions don’t typically happen immediately and tend to occur in the gastrointestinal tract. These symptoms include bloating, vomiting, and diarrhea and are generally not life-threatening.

Food allergies can be serious or even fatal. Sometimes a person with a severe food allergy doesn’t even have to eat the food to react to it. Something as insignificant as touching the food or inhaling its fumes can be deadly. Symptoms of a food allergy include skin reactions like hives, itching, or swelling, digestive symptoms, and anaphylaxis, which includes trouble breathing, dizziness, wheezing, and even death.

Eight foods cause the most allergies. The following foods cause 90 percent of all allergic reactions:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

What if You Have a Food Allergy?

It’s important to know if you have a food allergy. If you do have food allergies, you have to avoid those foods. In case of accidental ingestion, you must have self-injectable epinephrine on hand and know how to administer it. Allergies can be serious, but with the right care, they can be managed.

Whether you suspect you have a food allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance, contact Allergy & Asthma Specialists to help diagnose your symptoms. The board-certified allergists at A&AS are the region’s experts on identifying food allergies and administering high-risk food allergy testing and challenges. When you enlist the help of an experienced, board-certified allergist for proper testing and treatment, you can be confident that your doctor will help you find the solutions you need to manage your allergies. At Allergy & Asthma Specialists, all physicians are board certified in allergy and immunology and can help you identify triggers and learn to control your symptoms. Call (866) 966-0583 or schedule an appointment or check out our website to learn more about the services available to help you with your food allergies.