What’s the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy?

Physical reactions to certain foods are common, but most are caused by a food intolerance rather than a food allergy. A food intolerance can cause some of the same signs and symptoms as a food allergy, so people often confuse the two.

Here are the differences:

Food Intolerance

  • Symptoms: generally less serious, often limited to digestive problems, and usually begin within 72 hours after eating the food
  • The amounts that you can eat is different for everyone. You may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without trouble. You may also be able to prevent a reaction. For example, if you have lactose intolerance, you may be able to drink lactose-free milk or take lactase enzyme pills (Lactaid) to aid digestion
  • Causes of food intolerance include: absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food, irritable bowel syndrome, sensitivity to food additives, recurring stress or psychological factors, and celiac disease
  • Your doctor may recommend steps to aid digestion of certain foods or to treat the underlying condition causing your reaction
  • Elimination/provocation tests are a good way to find out the food intolerance

Food Allergy

  • Symptoms:usually begin within 2 hours after eating the food, can cause a range of symptoms
  • A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening. You can’t eat any of the allergen, traces can give a reaction
  • You may be at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) — even if past reactions have been mild. Learn how to recognize a severe allergic reaction and know what to do if one occurs. You may need to carry an emergency epinephrine shot (Adrenaclick, Auvi-Q, EpiPen) for emergency self-treatment.
  • Blood tests, skin prick tests, elimination/provocation tests are a good way to find out the food allergy

If you have a reaction after eating a particular food, see your doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy.