Differences between food allergies and food intolerances

Differences between food allergies and food intolerances

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The difference between food allergies and a food intolerance is a topic which many people are unaware of and has led to great amounts of public confusion. In order shed light on this, here are a few tips on how to differentiate between the two.

What are they?

Food allergies: This is the rapid reaction of a person’s immune system to a food. The immune system sees the substance as a threat and creates an antibody against it. Additionally the body starts producing large amounts of histamine and many other hormones. These reactions can be severe even if the body ingests or comes into physical contact with small amounts of the substance.

Food intolerance: An adverse reaction to some sort of food ingredient that occurs every time the food is eaten, but particularly if larger quantities are consumed. These symptoms are far less severe than those from allergies.

What are the symptoms?

Food allergies: These can produce severe symptoms, notably a raised, bright red rash known as urticaria which can spread across your body. Other common symptoms can include facial swelling- angioedema, tightness in the chest, feeling lightheaded, abdominal pain and spasms and severe diarrhea. These symptoms will usually manifest themselves within two hours of coming into contact with the food.


Food intolerance: These symptoms are less severe and don’t appear as immediately, but can still have a great impact on a person’s lifestyle. The most common symptoms are: IBS, aches and pains, frequent headaches or migraines, eczema and other rashes, nausea and problems either with constipation or diarrhea. Symptoms for food intolerance can take up to 72 hours to appear.

How common are they?

Food allergies: Very rare, roughly 2% of the UK’s population suffer from them according to a report from Allergy UK.

Food intolerance: The same report by Allergy UK estimates that up to 45% of people suffer from food intolerance.

What age do they develop at?

Food allergies: Usually developed from infancy, but it can also manifest during adulthood or latter stages in life.

Food intolerances: Can manifest themselves at any time during a person’s life.


What are the most common types of allergies and intolerances?

Food allergies: It is rare to have more than 2 allergies; the most common types are allergies to eggs, milk, peanuts, pine nuts, fish and shellfish.

Food intolerances: People can suffer from multiple food intolerances, the most common being: wheat, gluten, milk and certain fruits or vegetables.

Can they be treated?

Food allergies: for mild allergies, the most common treatment is the regular intake of antihistamines. For severe reactions, the only effective treatment is the injection of adrenalin to prevent a person going into anaphylactic shock. The best way to treat a food allergy is to avoid contact with the offending food at all possible times.

Food intolerances: due to its much milder nature there are no prescription treatments for food intolerance, the best way to avoid symptoms is once again to avoid the food. Food diaries and elimination diets are commonly recommended.

Hopefully this will help make things clearer and give you more information on these two differing conditions. If you think you may have a food intolerance, or want to read more about this common condition, YorkTest has some great more information on both the condition and treatment options.