According to a recent study, most adults who report having a food allergy haven’t actually been diagnosed. In fact, they may be confusing their symptoms with a food intolerance and unnecessarily avoiding some foods. Food intolerance and food allergies have different causes, pose different threats and often require different treatments. Here’s why seeing a specialist who can help you figure out the difference between the two matters for your quality of life.
Allergies and Your Immune System
While food allergies stem from the immune system, intolerance is not an immune issue. This means food allergies can have life-threatening symptoms like anaphylactic shock that require immediate medical intervention. Individuals with a true food allergy are advised to strictly avoid these foods due to the possibly serious nature of symptoms. On the other hand, food intolerance means a person has difficulty digesting a certain food and may often have symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, heartburn or headaches, among others. While these symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, food intolerance does not involve the immune system, and accidental exposures are not life-threatening. Instead of assuming any adverse reactions or discomfort is related to an allergy, I recommend that these patients seek expert opinion with an allergy/immunology provider before altering their lifestyle.
Impact on Quality of Life
For many, the diagnosis of a food allergy requires completely changing one or more of their consumption habits. For example, depending on the severity of the diagnosis, those with peanut allergies might have to avoid an area where the nut is present and carry an epinephrine auto-injector. Living with diagnosed food allergies also impacts patients’ nutrition and psychosocial interactions, especially when someone is required to avoid a certain food or substance entirely. Because of this, diagnosis is critical to not only understand safety measures, like carrying and using epinephrine, but also to diagnose and treat the symptoms of intolerance. A person with food intolerance will likely want to avoid a food, but does not risk a potentially life-threatening reaction after eating the food. A food intolerant person may even be able to eat small amounts of the food without significant discomfort.
[READ MORE: Can Food Allergies Be Prevented?]
Testing Is Key
What does allergy testing look like? At National Jewish Health, the diagnostic process begins with a respiratory, ear/nose/throat and dermatological history. Your doctor will also ask questions like if you have a family history of an allergy, if you have problems with specific foods and what your symptoms or reactions have been.
Opening the lines of communication with your doctor will help you determine if you need to undergo additional testing, such as blood or skin tests. With your doctor’s supervision, a food test — eliminating and then reintroducing the food back into your diet — will also help confirm diagnosis. Instead of unnecessarily avoiding foods that might have gastrointestinal impacts or might occasionally affect you in large doses, a doctor can help you dispel the myths of your symptoms to establish an accurate plan for your well-being.
Food allergies and intolerances can impact your life substantially. It’s always recommended that you keep an eye on your interactions with food, as people can develop allergies at any time. Taking food concerns seriously and prioritizing food concerns is important. Any symptoms you experience should be addressed with your doctor. By bringing up symptoms, you can help banish misconceptions about allergies and reach a proper diagnosis.
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