You probably know someone who can’t eat anything with peanuts, wheat, dairy, eggs or soy in it because of a food sensitivity or allergy. And you can’t walk through the aisles of most supermarkets without seeing an ever-expanding gluten-free section. With all this buzz, you might have wondered if you, in fact, might have a food intolerance as well. The answer isn’t always crystal clear.
It has never been more important to pay attention to what you’re eating and how it makes you feel. Researchers estimate that as many as 15 million Americans have food allergies, and a significant amount of those people don’t even know it. And there is an unknown number of people with milder sensitivities that still take a toll on their health. With the help of WebMD, we’ve identified the difference between food sensitivities and allergies, and some symptoms you should know about.
The biggest difference between a food allergy and sensitivity, is that an allergy can be life threatening. Allergic reactions usually come on very suddenly after exposure to a small amount of food, while sensitivities can appear more gradually. With this in mind, sensitivity reactions may only happen if you eat too much of a specific food (one bite of bread won’t do much, but an entire sandwich will).
While food allergies and sensitivities are different, the do have some shared symptoms that can blur the lines between them. These include:
- Stomach pain
A food allergy, the more serious of the two conditions, happens when your immune system mistakes something in food as harmful and attacks it. It can affect your whole body, not just your stomach, and symptoms may include:
- Rash, hives or itchy skin
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Sudden drop in blood pressure, trouble swallowing or breathing — this is life-threatening; call 911 immediately.
On the other hand, a food sensitivity has symptoms like gas, cramps, bloating, heartburn, headaches, irritability or nervousness after eating. This is due to an irritated stomach that can’t properly digest something you ate.
Identifying food allergies and sensitivities might seem tricky, but 90 percent of them are caused by just eight foods: peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, pecans and almonds), fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, soy and wheat. If you think you have an allergy, talk to a doctor immediately and find the best treatment plan. If it might be a sensitivity, keep a journal and write down what you eat any time you feel those symptoms. If it’s something obvious, try taking a break from that food and see if your symptoms vanish (it might be more than one food, so go broad and then bring the ingredients back one-by-one).
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