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May 13, 2021
5 min. read

Is it a Food Allergy or Food Sensitivity? What’s the Difference?

Medly

There are many things that factor into what exactly is a food sensitivity and what is a food allergy. It’s easy to get a food allergy and food sensitivity confused, but since some allergies can be life-threatening, it’s essential to understand the difference.

Bites of the wrong food could mean a trip to the hospital for either a food allergy or sensitivity, but some food allergies can prove deadly. Most of us take for granted what we eat every day to fuel our bodies. But many of us would be surprised at how common food allergies and sensitivities really are. There are currently 32 million Americans who have food allergies, and that number includes 5.6 million children.

Food Allergy Awareness Week runs from May 12-18, so it’s the perfect time to learn more about food allergies, sensitivities, and the ways we can safeguard ourselves and those around us.

Confusion Over Food Allergies and Food Intolerance is Rampid

Food sensitivity has come a long way in recent decades to include a host of special widely-available dietary options like “gluten-free” and “lactose-free” product lines. But there’s still great confusion. Although many people suffer from food sensitivity or a food intolerance, it’s not the same as a food allergy. One study actually found that close to 20% of U.S. adults mistakenly believe they suffer from a food allergy while only 10% of the population truly does.

food allergy

Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivity

The difference between an allergy and a sensitivity comes down to the severity of the symptoms. There are some similarities, but sensitivity or intolerance will usually cause symptoms like mild stomach discomfort. A food allergy can be severe. The difference between a food allergy and sensitivity is how our bodies react. When we have a food allergy, our immune system reacts throughout our bodies. If you have a food sensitivity or intolerance, the reaction happens in the gut, primarily affecting the digestive system.

What are food allergies?

A food allergy is when the body's immune system has an adverse reaction to specific foods. Although many allergic reactions are often mild, some can have more serious consequences to your health. Symptoms of a food allergy can affect several areas of the body at the same time. Common symptoms include a rash or irritation inside the mouth or throat.

food sensitivity

It only takes a tiny amount of an allergy-causing food to trigger a reaction in someone with a specific allergy to the food. The body’s immune system mistakes the food as a threat, causing an immune response that can include digestive distress, dizziness, and swelling of the mouth and face. More severe reactions can lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition that causes the throat to swell and blood pressure to quickly drop to dangerously low levels. Common foods that cause allergic reactions:

  • Peanuts
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Tree Nuts
  • Shellfish
  • Fish
  • Raw Fruits and Vegetables
  • Sesame Seeds

What is Food Sensitivity?

Food sensitivity is complicated due to the fact that, unlike allergies, there are a host of different causes. Difficulty digesting lactose (the sugar in dairy products) is a very common food intolerance. The lack of certain digestive enzymes in the digestive system makes lactose difficult for some people to break down. Instead, the lactose remains in the digestive tract, causing gas, intestinal pain, and sometimes nausea.

patient provider

Reactions to foods can make it hard to identify a source. A bout of bloating or diarrhea may not necessarily be because of a food sensitivity. A reaction could be tied to something altogether different, like food poisoning, bacteria growth on the food, or a sensitivity to a food additive, not the food itself.

Celiac is a commonly known disease popularly thought to be a sensitivity to gluten. However, celiac is a bit more complex than that and actually is more like a hybrid of an allergic reaction and food sensitivity.

Foods that commonly are difficult to tolerate and can cause a sensitivity

  • Lactose: dairy
  • Gluten: wheat, barley, and rye
  • Caffeine: coffee, tea
  • Salicylates: tomatoes, nightshade vegetables, broccoli
  • Amines: processed meats, fermented foods, soy sauce
  • FODMAPs: onions, beans, lentils, artificial sweeteners
  • Sulfites: baked goods, soup mixes, pickled foods
  • Fructose: juice, licorice, molasses

What are the key differences?

The difference between a food allergy and sensitivity is how the body reacts to it. With a food allergy, our immune system causes the reaction. Alternately, food sensitivities are generally less severe, with reactions taking place within the digestive system.

What do both food allergies and sensitivities have in common?

Both food allergies and sensitivities can affect a person’s diet and lifestyle. A true food allergy causes the immune system to react and that can affect several organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe to the point of being life threatening. Food sensitivity symptoms are for the most part less serious and often limited to digestive discomfort.

  • Symptoms of food sensitivity usually cause diarrhea, constipation, unwanted gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, and nausea.
  • Symptoms of food allergy cause swelling, itchy rash, hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and possible dizziness.

Treatment for Food Allergies

If you think you may have an allergy, avoid exposure to the food until you can see a doctor. If you have consumed the food and have a reaction, normally an over-the-counter antihistamine may control the symptoms. If you have a severe reaction, experience difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, seek emergency help. Once diagnosed with a food allergy, patients will be instructed about how to stay safe. This included:

  • Reading food labels. Avoiding foods that may contain the food allergen or are produced in the same place as the allergen.
  • Avoiding cross-contact and cross-reactivity.
  • Recognizing symptoms immediately after ingesting an allergen.
  • Preparing an emergency action plan.
  • Knowing how to use an auto-injector and always having it nearby.

Treatment for food allergy

Treatment for Food Sensitivity

It may take blood tests and working with a doctor to correctly identify the cause of a food sensitivity. Removing the offending foods is usually an easy remedy. When these foods are removed from the diet and the body has sufficient time to heal, over time many people no longer react to the same foods. At first, making changes to give up the food you like can be a challenge, but there are many substitutes on the market that can help make the changes more palatable.

Sources: Food Allergy vs. Sensitivity: What’s the Difference? Food Allergy The 8 Most Common Food Allergies How to Cope with Your Food Allergy Food Allergy Research and Education Statistics

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