While it can be normal to occasionally experience gastrointestinal distress—such as bloating, diarrhea or constipation—if you frequently have uncomfortable GI symptoms, you may have a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity.
The main difference between a food allergy and intolerance is that an allergy is related to your immune system, while an intolerance is related to your digestive system. Generally, food allergies cause more severe symptoms than food intolerances.
What is a food allergy?
A food allergy is an immune response to a specific trigger. The most common food allergens are wheat, fish, shellfish, tree nuts (like walnuts and cashews), peanuts, eggs, milk and soy.
If you have a food allergy, your immune system sees that particular food as a threat. A food allergy can cause a severe or even life-threatening reaction.
Symptoms usually develop within two hours or less. They may include wheezing, difficulty breathing, a rash, hives, trouble swallowing, vomiting, diarrhea, and swelling of the throat, lips or tongue. A food allergy can also cause anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that causes dizziness, trouble breathing or loss of consciousness. Anaphylaxis can be fatal if it’s not treated immediately with epinephrine and medical care. If you know you have a food allergy, always keep an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen) with you.
What is a food intolerance?
A food intolerance means that your body has a hard time breaking down certain foods or food preservatives. Lactose intolerance is a common example. If you are lactose intolerant, your body has trouble digesting lactose, a sugar found in milk products.
Food intolerance symptoms can be uncomfortable, but they aren’t usually severe or life-threatening. Symptoms may include nausea, stomach pain, heartburn, bloating, gas or diarrhea.
Over-the-counter medications for lactose intolerance can help reduce mild symptoms.
Many people think of celiac disease as an allergy to gluten, but the condition is actually an autoimmune disorder that’s caused by gluten. For people with celiac disease, eating even a small amount of gluten can damage the GI tract. However, some people who don’t have celiac disease are intolerant to gluten, which causes fatigue, bloating or gas.
What is a food sensitivity?
Then, there are food sensitivities. Like a food allergy, food sensitivities lead to an immune response in the body. Usually, they’re caused by an imbalance in your GI tract’s microbiome (bacteria).
Symptoms are basically mild allergic reactions and manifest as a runny or stuffy nose, fatigue, itching, headaches or migraines, sneezing, red skin, brain fog, and muscle or joint pain.
Unlike food allergies, food sensitivity symptoms can take days to appear.
What causes food allergies?
Allergies and intolerances can be genetic. Others develop or worsen over time. More research is needed, but it seems that children are more likely to have food allergies if one or both parents have food allergies.
When to seek medical care
If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, talk to your primary care provider. They may ask you to keep a food diary to identify potential triggers, recommend a short-term elimination diet or refer you for allergy testing.
If you experience a severe allergic reaction, use your epinephrine autoinjector and seek emergency medical care.
To find a provider near you, visit www.pardeehospital.org.
Brady Bullock is a certified physician assistant at Pardee Mills River Family Health Center.