Allergy or Food Intolerance? What is the difference?

More and more people are suffering from either allergy and/or food intolerances.  Many, many years ago, allergies were something alien; when a child didn’t want to eat certain foods, saying it made him feel bloated or caused a blocked nose, he was told he is “fussy.”

Years later many people’s perspectives have changed, due to more people becoming allergic or intolerant.  The internet and magazines writing about it, put these two on the map, as it were, and today it is not weird anymore if you come across someone who is allergic or has a food intolerance.

What is the difference then? 

An allergy is an abnormal reaction by the body to foreign substances, called allergens.  Once they enter the body, the body’s immune system detects it and produces an allergy-associated antibody known as Immunoglobulin E (IgE), to fight the allergens.  An allergic reaction can be sudden, but it can also build-up over time.  Examples are sneezing, wheezing, itching, developing a rash (like eczema), shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches (migraines included), hives, and a swollen tongue and/or lips, are some of the symptoms.  A sudden reaction will be swollen lips, tongue, not being able to breathe, anaphylaxis shock (the latter can be fatal). 

There are many allergens, for example, dairy products like milk and cream, peanuts, shell fish, bee stings, pollen, smoke (including second hand smoking), avocado’s, bananas, mould, dust mites, animal hair (cats and dogs), eggs, chocolate, colourings, preservatives, chemicals found in washing powders, soups and make-up, deodorant, medicine, like Penicillin, and so forth. Another trigger is also any fruit, cooldrink, medicine and the like, that is yellow / uses yellow as a colouring. Added preservatives to food and especially cooldrinks (fizzy drinks especially), can also trigger an allergic reaction.

Allergies can be tested by blood tests, elimination diets and the “arm-test” (using kinesiology).  The latter is one of the older forms of testing for allergies, but more and more doctors are using it again.  It is also easy to do – all you do is hold the food (that you suspect is causing the allergy), in your writing hand, against your body just above your naval.  Stretch out your other arm and ask a friend / partner / parent to press it gently.  You must try and resist.  If you can, then it is not the culprit.  If your arm goes down halfway, it means you should not eat / drink it regularly.  If your arm goes down all the way (and you cannot resist the gentle press), it is the culprit and should be avoided.  Speaking from experience I can assure you that this test works!

The biggest difference between allergies and food intolerances, is that allergies can be fatal.  Anaphylaxis is the most fatal, although vomiting, skin rashes (e.g. eczema), asthma and diarrhoea, can also be linked to allergies.

Food intolerances, on the other hand, is not related to the immune system.   It is not fatal but can cause bloating, constipation, tiredness, irritable bowel symptom, sneezing (hay fever) and a scratchy throat.  There are two different types:

An abnormal absorption of food, that results from an enzyme deficiency (for example lactose intolerance – caused due to a lack of the lactase enzyme – needed by the body to digest the milk sugar lactose);

A reaction caused by naturally occurring chemicals in food, e.g. tyramine and histamine, or food additives, like sulphur dioxide and benzoates.

Do not confuse cold symptoms with an allergic reaction.  Colds usually disappear in a week to 10 days. Allergic rhinitis, on the other hand, can linger for weeks; even months.  Nasal discharge from a cold start of runny, then thickens.  With an allergy it often stays runny, itches, your eyes water and/or your skin itches.  When hay fever turns into sinusitis, your nose can become blocked and feel stuffy all the time.

Another interesting fact about allergies and intolerances is that adults can also develop it (even if they’ve never been allergic or intolerant in their early years). The sulphurs used in wine can trigger it, food, animals, pollen, pollution and even stress. Some can also develop IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) after an operation; especially in the abdomen and/or small or large intestine.

Growing up with allergies, I can assure you that life wasn’t always easy; especially because not many people understood what it really meant to be allergic. However, I was lucky to outgrow most of it and today I simply avoid what I still cannot consume and live a healthy, active life! I also believe that it is best – in the long-term – to treat the cause and not just the symptom. So, instead of only relying just on anti-histamine tablets to supress the symptoms, why not see a homeopath / naturopath for a second opinion? All the homeopaths in South Africa has got medical background as well, so you do get “the best of both,” so to speak.

All in all; remember to wear a MedicAlert-bracelet if you are highly allergic (especially to Penicillin).  If you are not sure, consult a doctor or your health practitioner.

Lastly; many food intolerances can be / are outgrown, but some allergies not; so just make sure you know the difference and plan your meals, and so forth, accordingly.

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