Food Intolerances and Food Allergies: Do You Know the Difference?

Nuts, shellfish, soy and wheat – you’ve probably heard of these common food allergies. However, did you know that food intolerances have many of the same symptoms as food allergies? A lot of people often mistake the two, but knowing the differences is crucial.

A food intolerance, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, does not involve the immune system, but rather the digestive system. “A food intolerance, or a food sensitivity occurs when a person has difficulty digesting a particular food. This can lead to symptoms such as intestinal gas, abdominal pain or diarrhea.” A good example of a common food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which can cause abdominal pain or diarrhea. If someone who is lactose intolerant really wants to have dairy, there are lactase enzyme pills they can take which aid in digestion and soften the effects that the intolerance can have on the body.


A food allergy is more severe, because it can result in anaphylactic shock or death. It is a reaction that the body’s immune system has to certain foods, and adverse symptoms can occur even if the person only ingests a minuscule amount of the food in question. The body mistakenly recognizes the food as an enemy/foreign substance, develops antibodies and uses energy to attack it. This attack releases chemicals like histamine, which cause the allergic reaction.

What can happen if you have an allergic reaction to food?

  • Your throat can swell up, blocking airflow to your lungs.
  • You may develop hives and become very itchy.
  • You may have shortness of breath and wheezing/coughing.
  • You may begin having a low heart rate and/or dizziness and lightheadedness.
  • As with a food intolerance, you may have abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting.
  • You may experience anaphylaxis, and in most severe cases, death.

A lot of the time, children are born with food allergies, and it’s possible for them to grow out of them. Food allergies can also develop in full-grown adults, however. That’s why it’s important to understand and recognize the symptoms. If you’ve eaten peanuts all of your life, and then one day you have an allergic reaction, you must remember to remain calm and call an ambulance as soon as possible. Every second counts, and if you’ve never had an allergic reaction to food before, then the outcome is unpredictable.

Additionally, you may consider having an allergy test (puncture or scratch test) conducted by a doctor to see if you have any of the most common food allergies. This is especially recommended if certain food allergies run in your family. It never hurts to be prepared beforehand.