Food allergy and intolerance

Food allergy and intolerance

What is the difference between the two?

People often confuse allergies and intolerances. Understanding them clearly will help if you are concerned about a possible food-related problem in your own family.

Food allergy

  • An allergy is related to a reaction by the body’s immune system to a particular food.
  • Physical reactions develop quickly after a food has been eaten.
  • Symptoms of a reaction might include itching, rashes, swelling and redness around the mouth and in extreme cases breathing difficulties.
  • The smallest amount of a food might cause an allergic reaction.
  • A food allergy can be life-threatening and should be treated with urgent medical attention.
  • The food must be completely avoided.
  • A person with a serious allergy might be given portable treatment (eg an ‘Epi-Pen’) to keep with them at all times, to counter a reaction.

Food intolerance


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  • Physical reactions tend to be less intense and obvious – bloating or stomach pain a few hours after eating.
  • An intolerance is triggered by the body’s digestive system’s inability to efficiently break down something in a food that has been eaten.
  • Symptoms are not immediately life-threatening but can affect general well-being.
  • Because the reaction isn’t so quickly noticed, it can take a while to identify an intolerance. It is worth identifying a few possible causes, taking these out of the diet and then gradually adding them back in to see what happens. Consult a GP before cutting whole food groups out of a diet.
  • The food should be avoided but small amounts of it are unlikely to cause too much discomfort.

Savvy tip
Check out How to spot a food allergy.

Pass it on – Five common food allergies
Check out the food allergens most common in children.

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