The difference between food allergy and food intolerance – Times of India

Every time you have a glass of milk or a bowl of dahi and you feel bloated, get gas or diarrhoea, does it mean you are allergic to milk (or are lactose intolerant)? Probably not. Physical reactions to certain foods are common but most of these are caused by food intolerance and not because of food allergy. A food allergy can cause the same symptoms and signs as food allergy, so people often confuse between the two.

What is a food allergy?

Food allergy causes immune system reaction that affects the various organs of the body. Food allergy in some cases can be severe and even life-threatening. It can have a range of symptoms, while food intolerance is generally not serious and is only limited to digestive problems.

During food allergy, the immune system, which fights infections, sees some particular food as an invader. This leads to an allergic reaction where a chemical like histamine is released in the body. It can cause symptoms like breathing issues, coughing, vomiting, abdominal pain, swelling and low blood pressure. Anyone with a food allergy must avoid the food causing problem entirely and should always carry their emergency medicine.

What is food intolerance?

If you have food intolerance, you can still have small portions of that food without troubling your digestive system much. For example, if you have lactose intolerance, you can have lactose free milk or take a lactase enzyme pill to ease digestion.

What causes food intolerance?

Absence of an enzyme needed to digest food fully: For example, lactose intolerance is caused by the lack of lactase enzyme, which helps digest the sugar in milk or other dairy products.

Irritable bowel syndrome: The condition can cause constipation, cramping and diarrhoea.

Sensitivity of food additives: Sulfites used to preserve dried fruits, wine and canned good can trigger asthma attack in people have it already.

Stress and psychological factors:
Sometimes only the thought of some food can make you sick. The reason behind the same is still not fully understood.

Celiac disease:
Celiac disease has true features of food allergy as it involves the immune system. This chronic digestive condition can be triggered by eating gluten, which is found in wheat and other grains.


If you notice any reaction after eating a particular food, you must see your doctor to determine if it’s a food allergy or food intolerance. Food allergy needs to be taken seriously because it can cause life-threatening reactions (anaphylaxis), which need emergency treatment.

If you have a food intolerance, your doctor will treat you for the underlying condition that is causing the reaction.

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