Food Allergies, Intolerances & Sensitivities: What's the difference?

Food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities are increasingly common.

Nut-free schools are commonplace, and the number of gluten-free foods are on the rise due to the fact that millions of Americans experience allergic reactions or sensitivities to foods every year. While most reactions are mild, some can be life-threatening and require emergency treatment or hospitalization.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are simply an abnormal response to food that’s triggered by your immune system. It happens when the immune system mistakes a non-harmful food, like peanuts, tree nuts or eggs for a serious invader and overreacts to it. The immune system creates a specific type of compound called an IgE antibody that is responsible for most of the symptoms seen in true allergies. In an allergic reaction, the production of IgE antibodies is triggered by a protein in the offending food. These IgE-mediated allergic reactions can be non-serious or serious and life-threatening such as in an anaphylactic reaction to food.

Severe Food Allergies: Anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock

Anaphylaxis is typically a fast-developing and life-threatening reaction that can occur when exposed to specific foods, medications, or stinging insects (e.g., bees). Symptoms can include sneezing, coughing, itching, hives, swelling, blood pressure drop, abdominal pain, dizziness, tightness in the throat, and shortness of breath. The main treatment for an anaphylactic reaction is an epinephrine auto-injector and calling 9-1-1. Avoiding what caused your reaction and carrying an Epi pen is necessary to prevent future life-threatening reactions which may become more severe than the initial one.

Approximately 1-2% of adults and fewer than 10% of children suffer from food allergies. Most food allergies are first noticed during childhood, but they can develop at any age and may last for a lifetime. Mild allergic reactions to a food may result in more serious symptoms the next time it is eaten. So, after your first reaction—even if it’s mild—it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider to see if you should go for allergy testing or carry emergency medication.

While it’s not entirely clear what makes a person develop a food allergy, research shows that your genes and your gut microbiome may influence your chance of developing food allergies. New studies show that introducing young children to peanuts may reduce their chances of developing serious peanut allergies. (Speak with your healthcare provider before introducing your child to peanuts.)

While there is no cure for food allergies, reactions can be prevented by avoiding contact with that specific food. Although any food has the potential to cause an allergic response, there are a few foods that account for most reactions.