Food Sensitivity or Food Allergies: Which Do You Have?
More than 30 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. That includes about 26 million adults and nearly 6 million kids.
Food allergies can have serious and even life-threatening consequences, but not all food-related reactions are caused by allergies. Some are caused by food sensitivities. Understanding the differences between allergies and sensitivities is important for making sure you get the right treatment.
The medical team at Medical Access uses allergy testing to identify allergies and sensitivities, helping patients get the right care based on their needs. If you’re having a reaction to one or more foods in your diet, here’s what our providers want you to know.
How allergies happen
Allergies happen when your body is exposed to a substance (called an allergen) and that substance triggers an immune system response. Your immune system views the allergen as a dangerous invader.
The first time you encounter an allergen, like a specific food or ingredient, your immune system reacts by producing an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE travels to cells that release histamine and other chemicals that cause allergy attacks.
Antibodies are unique and designed to react to specific allergens, like a lock and key. The first time you’re exposed to an allergen, you may not have any reaction because your body hasn’t produced any antibodies for that allergen yet.
When your immune system reacts, it can cause an array of symptoms ranging from uncomfortable to life-threatening, like:
- Itchy skin
- Itchy throat
- Watery, red, itchy, or burning eyes
- Digestive problems
- Difficulty breathing
- Throat swelling that can block your airway
- Anaphylactic shock
Severe allergic reactions can cause death unless they’re treated immediately.
Allergies vs. sensitivities
Even though food sensitivities cause unpleasant symptoms, there’s a major difference between sensitivities and allergies. There is no immune system reaction involved in a food sensitivity (sometimes called a food intolerance).
Although food allergies are caused by an immune system reaction, food sensitivities happen because your digestive system doesn’t react well to the food or ingredient. Typically, your digestive system doesn’t break down a food the way it should, it has problems absorbing it, or the food irritates your digestive tract.
Food sensitivities cause symptoms like:
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Belly cramps
Although these symptoms are unpleasant, they aren’t life-threatening like food allergy reactions can be.
Diagnosing and treating food allergies
Allergies are diagnosed using allergy testing, a series of in-office tests designed to monitor your reaction to a tiny dose of a suspected allergen. Our team uses three testing methods:
- Blood tests to measure levels of IgE in your blood
- Skin scratch tests
- Elimination diets to isolate food that trigger reactions
Prior to your test, you might need to stop taking vitamins, supplements, or medicines that could interfere with your results.
The FDA has identified nine foods that cause 90% of food allergies:
- Tree nuts
Because food allergies can have severe and life-threatening reactions, if you do have a food allergy, you’ll need to avoid that food or ingredient and any foods including that ingredient. You’ll also need to keep self-injectable epinephrine with you at all times. Epinephrine is necessary to prevent anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death.
If you suspect you have a food allergy, book an appointment online or over the phone with Medical Access today. We have offices in Germantown, Rockville, and Beltsville, Maryland, and Alexandria, Woodbridge, and McLean, Virginia — and we can help with food sensitivities, too.