Allergic or intolerant: what are the differences?

Allergic or intolerant: what are the differences?

Allergic reactions and intolerances to food and other dietary materials aren't uncommon. In fact, about one per cent of all adults are affected by a food allergy, while roughly five per cent of all children will experience an allergic reaction to something in a food or drink1. On the other hand, many people suffer from intolerances such as gluten or lactose intolerance. As much as 25 per cent of people are believed to have an intolerance1

The difference between intolerance and allergy can be tough to diagnose because the symptoms are often so similar. A person with an allergic reaction might feel ill from eating a certain food - just as a person with an intolerance might. One difference is that most people will grow out of these types of allergies, although those allergic to peanuts and shellfish tend to suffer longer-lasting symptoms1. However, the main difference lies in the fact that an allergy involves the immune system, while intolerance doesn't.

An allergy occurs when the immune system identifies an ingredient in food as a threat to the body. This creates antibodies to fight the mistaken threat, which causes symptoms such as hives, nausea, stomach pain, chest pain, diarrhoea, itchy skin, anaphylaxis and shortness of breath1. Such reactions to food can be genetic, but this isn’t always the case.

Food intolerance can appear as an allergy due to similar symptoms. But food intolerances are caused by the body being unable to process and digest the food. This means those with intolerances may encounter stomach pains, gas, cramps, bloating, heartburn, vomiting or diarrhoea1.

The best way to find out if you or the kids are suffering from an allergy or intolerance is to seek professional advice from a GP or healthcare professional. The tests to detect allergies are often simple and your GP may provide advice to help you avoid food items that trigger reactions in future.