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How to Tell the Difference Between Food Allergies and Sensitivities


It seems like food allergies are on the rise, but is it a real allergy or just a sensitivity?

Physical reactions to foods happen to a lot of people, whether they get hives or a rash after eating certain foods or they develop cramping and diarrhea. Some people even suffer from life-threatening food allergies that necessitate immediate action to save their lives.

But what’s the difference? Are you allergic to the foods you eat, or do you just have a sensitivity?

Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities

The big difference that determines whether a food causes allergic reactions or sensitivity response is precisely that, how the body handles the food. In short, it tends to be an immune system response versus a digestive system reaction.

Food Allergies

Food allergies cause the immune system in the body to respond, and a variety of organs can show symptoms. Each person may react to different foods in different ways. The key factor is that the reaction can be severe or life-threatening.

Food allergies symptoms can include the following:

♦ Hives

♦ Itching

♦ Swelling

♦ Dizziness or lightheadedness

♦ Shortness of breath, wheezing, or nasal congestion

♦ Abdominal pain or cramping

♦ Diarrhea

♦ Nausea and/or vomiting

♦ Anaphylaxis

Swelling of the eye

It’s important to note that allergy symptoms typically appear within a few minutes to a couple of hours after eating the food. Each experience with the offending food may be different.

Some people may be treated at home with medications, but if someone is showing signs of anaphylaxis, it’s critical that they seek emergency treatment immediately.

Food allergies are caused by a sensitivity to chemical compounds (proteins) in foods, and it seems that genetics may play a significant role in developing a food allergy.

The first time you eat the food your body creates disease-fighting antibodies. Those same antibodies are triggered the next time you eat the food, and the body steps up to fight off the “invader.”

While just about any food could cause an allergic reaction in an individual, the CDC says that the following eight foods account for more than 90% of all allergic reactions in people:

♦ Milk

♦ Eggs

♦ Fish

♦ Shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp, etc.)

♦ Tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.)

♦ Peanuts

♦ Wheat

♦ Soy

Food allergies are more prevalent in children than adults, and the majority of children lose their allergic reaction as they get older.

Food Sensitivities or Intolerance

When someone has a food sensitivity or intolerance, the reaction is typically less serious and often confined to digestive issues. Some people with sensitivities can eat a little of the food that bothers them without experiencing a reaction, or they can limit their reaction with medications and supplements designed to target the problem.

Woman after finishing her food on the plate

If you eat a particular food and have one or more of the following reaction(s) a few hours later, then it’s possible you’re experiencing a symptom of a food intolerance rather than an allergy.

♦ Stomach pain

♦ Cramping

♦ Bloating

♦ Gas

♦ Diarrhea

♦ Nausea

♦ Vomiting

♦ Heartburn

♦ Feeling irritable or nervous

As you can see, some of the symptoms of food intolerance are also the symptoms of a food allergy. If you experience some of these shared symptoms after a meal and believe it’s related to something you ate, it’s important to visit your doctor to check whether it’s an allergy or a sensitivity.

Not all reactions are the same and can change over time, so eating a peanut one day could lead to diarrhea and nausea, and you could assume that it’s sensitivity. If it’s actually a food allergy, that same exposure at a later date could cause a more serious reaction and even anaphylaxis.


There’s not one reason that people have a food sensitivity or intolerance, but the following could be the cause of your food issues:

Missing enzyme: It’s possible that you simply do not have the enzymes you need to process certain foods without suffering some side effects. Lactose intolerance is a common example of this.

Irritable bowel syndrome: This is a chronic condition that can make digesting some foods very difficult.

Sensitivity to additives: If you’re sensitive to the additives in foods, this can cause a reaction that may appear to be related to the food.

Celiac disease: With the gluten-free craze these days, there’s a lot about celiac disease in the news. While this disease is very serious and has some symptoms that are closely related to allergies, it’s primarily a gastrointestinal illness.

How to Handle Food Allergies and Sensitivities

If you’re aware that you have a reaction to a certain food, it’s a good idea to have your doctor perform allergy tests to determine the level of sensitivity.

If your doctor finds that you definitely have an allergy, then they will probably prescribe an epinephrine autoinjector, which is often called an epi pen, to be used in case of emergency. Make sure that you and your close companions know how to use it because you might have such a strong reaction that you need help immediately.

It’s vital that you know what you’re eating and drinking when you have food sensitivities. Luckily, most restaurants today are familiar with the serious repercussions that can come from someone eating a food they’re allergic to, and they’ll be very helpful in sharing the ingredients and possible cross-contamination concerns.

Man using epipen

It’s also a good idea to plan your own meals and snacks whenever possible, so you have something that’s safe for you to eat– just in case.

Finally, wear a medic alert bracelet or necklace if you’re someone who has a severe allergy. This simple step can mean the difference between life and death.

Waking Up To Wellness

The big difference between food sensitivities and food allergies all comes down to how your body reacts. If your body treats the substance like an invader and begins an attack, then you have a food allergy. If you suffer mainly from gastrointestinal concerns, then it’s likely just a sensitivity.

With a food sensitivity, you’ll be uncomfortable and may feel sick, but you don’t have to worry about serious health concerns. With an allergy, if anaphylaxis occurs, you could be hit with some very major health problems that can include coma and even death.

It’s important to know the signs of both types of reactions to food so you can respond appropriately. If necessary, let those you dine with frequently know of your issues so they can help. It’s also a great idea to involve your doctor in these conversations, so you’re as prepared for an emergency as possible.