Food intolerance vs allergy

According to the NHS the number of people who believe they have a food intolerance has risen dramatically over recent years. And to muddy the waters even further, some claim to have a food allergy, when what they really mean is they have a food intolerance. So how can you tell the difference between the two?

If eating certain foods bring on certain symptoms, a food allergy or food intolerance could certainly be to blame. Out of the two, food allergy is often the more serious – and, thankfully, far less common. Most food allergies affect younger children under the age of three, says the NHS (one in every 14 children of this age is affected). However, most grow out of their food allergies by the time they start school. But for those who have a food allergy that persists into adulthood, it’s like to affect them for the rest of their lives.

The speed at which you react to certain foods could give you a clue. If you have a food allergy, a reaction often happens soon after eating and can, in some cases, be life threatening (this serious form of allergy is called anaphylaxis). Food intolerance, on the other hand, usually triggers symptoms much more gradually. But while it may not be life threatening, a food intolerance can make you feel very unwell and have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.

Here are some of the main differences between food allergy and intolerance, as outlined by the NHS:

Food allergy

  • Symptoms come on within seconds or minutes of eating
  • Classic food allergy symptoms include rash, wheezing and itching
  • The most common foods that cause allergies among adults include fish, shellfish and nuts
  • Children are often allergic to milk and eggs in addition to peanuts, other nuts and fish
  • Even a tiny trace of food can cause a reaction
  • Food allergies can be easily diagnosed with tests

Food intolerance

  • Symptoms usually come on more slowly and tend to be long lasting
  • Typical symptoms include bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, migraine, lethargy and a general feeling of poor health
  • It can be difficult to identify which foods are to blame, as it’s possible to be intolerant to several different kinds
  • A reasonable amount of food is usually needed to cause a reaction (though some people can be sensitive to small amounts)
  • Food intolerance is difficult to diagnose as there are only a few reliable tests available (recent advice from the government health watchdog NICE claims tests including IgG testing, Vega testing, hair analysis and kinesiology are unreliable as they’re not based on scientific evidence)

What should you do?

Anyone who thinks they may have a food allergy must have it properly diagnosed by a medical professional, as extreme allergies (anaphylaxis) can be fatal. If it turns out that you are allergic to one or more foods there’s no treatment – the only solution is to avoid the food or foods you react to. This means reading food labels very carefully and being very vigilant while eating out.

If you have a food intolerance, you may feel tempted to cut the offending food or foods from your diet. But before you do so, speak to your GP or your pharmacist, as it’s important for your health to eat as wide a variety of foods as you can. It can also be a good idea to keep a food and symptoms diary, especially if you’re not sure which foods are causing an intolerance. This could be particularly useful if you’re referred to a specialist such as a dietitian.

Meanwhile, speak to your local Careway pharmacist about medicines that may help relieve your symptoms, including antidiarrhoea and anti-cramping treatments to soothe your digestive system. If you have a mild or moderate food allergy – that is, a food allergy that doesn’t require you to have an adrenalin auto-injector (which you will need if your allergy is severe) – your pharmacist may recommend medicines called antihistamines to treat your symptoms. Always ask your pharmacist for advice about such medicines, as some may not be suitable for everyone.

Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.