Food intolerance or Food Allergy? The Most Common Health Issues That Mimic Common Allergies

Diagnosing food intolerance can be tricky. For one, its symptoms often overlap with those of other conditions, most notably food allergy. When children break out in skin rashes and feel bloated after a scrumptious meal, parents get concerned — and they should be. Be that as it may, parents should be careful not to jump to conclusions. Once a child develops symptoms usually associated with food intolerance, the first order of business is to get a proper diagnosis. Once that part is done, you can proceed to determining and executing the proper treatment.

As mentioned earlier, getting the correct diagnosis is often where it gets difficult. To avoid confusion, perhaps it’s best to kick things off with a formal definition.

What is a food intolerance?

According to NHS, A food intolerance is a “difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction to them.”

If that definition sounds broad, that’s because it is. So a breakdown of all symptoms is in order.

Here are the most common symptoms of food intolerance, according to the Australian NSW Food Authority:

  • Bloating
  • Migraines
  • Headaches
  • A cough
  • A runny nose
  • Feeling under the weather
  • Stomach ache
  • Irritable Bowel
  • Hives

Now that’s a lot of symptoms. Looking at them now, it’s quite telling why people who suffer from food intolerance often misdiagnose themselves. Sometimes the culprit is stress or a stomach bug. For infants, food intolerance is usually mistaken for teething or the other way around. In most cases, parents mistake food intolerance for food allergy just because they are more familiar with the latter.

Food intolerance vs allergy: signs your child has allergies and not a food intolerance

Unlike a food allergy, food intolerance is an inability to process a certain type of food. The adverse reaction is usually caused by an enzyme deficiency. Conversely, the symptoms of food allergy are an immediate reaction of the immune system, usually involving the compound histamine. The most important distinction is that food intolerance is not serious whereas food allergy is potentially life-threatening.

Most people often confuse the two, but food intolerance and food allergy have key differences that distinguish one from the other.

Length of time before symptoms start.

The symptoms of food intolerance take more time to manifest, taking up to 72 hours (making it difficult to home in on the offending food). The warning signs of food allergy, on the other hand, occur within minutes to two hours following the ingestion of the allergen.

Amount of food taken.

Another telling difference is that unlike a food allergy, food intolerance is triggered after eating considerable amounts of certain foods. In contrast, a person suffering from food allergy only has to eat a tiny morsel of the wrong food before he feels any of the symptoms.

Stark difference in the variety of foods causing the reaction.

The types of food that trigger food allergies are very few: milk, eggs, tree nuts, shellfish, peanuts, and fish. Food intolerance, on the other hand, is caused by many different foods.

A common type of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which is an inability to digest milk sugar (lactose). Gluten intolerance is another common malady, which, as the term implies, causes adverse reactions after ingesting gluten. Gluten is a type of protein often found in wheat, barley, and rye.

Other than dairy products and wheat gluten products, here are foods that are more commonly known to cause food intolerance symptoms:

  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • caffeine
  • alcohol
  • artificial sweeteners
  • histamine (found in Quorn, mushrooms, pickled and cured foods, and alcoholic drinks)
  • toxins, viruses, bacteria or parasites that have contaminated food
  • artificial food colors, preservatives or flavor enhancers

How to treat food intolerance

If you find out that your body is unable to tolerate a particular food, the best course of action is to stop eating it for a while (two weeks at the most) and then reintroducing it into your diet in small amounts while monitoring if the symptoms will occur again.

If you think you and your child are experiencing food intolerance, it’s always best to consult your doctor immediately.

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