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What are Food Allergies?

Food intolerance vs. food allergy

Many people confuse a food allergy with food intolerance. They have many similar symptoms, but they’re not the same thing, and the differences between the two are important. Both conditions usually involve the digestive tract, with uncomfortable symptoms like bloating and cramping, and can leave you feeling miserable. But if you have a food allergy, your reaction can potentially be life-threatening. Because of this, it's crucial to find out whether your reaction is a result of an allergy or intolerance in order to determine the appropriate management plan.

A food intolerance, or a food sensitivity, happens when you experience difficulty digesting a particular food. It’s estimated that up to 20 percent of the world’s population may have a food intolerance. Symptoms of food intolerance can be delayed by up to 48 hours and last a long time, making the offending food especially difficult to pinpoint. Common symptoms include:13

  • Intestinal gas and bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Food Allergy Symptoms

Food allergies have a wide variety of symptoms, which include:

  • Digestive symptoms (e.g. stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea)
  • Intense itching
  • Swelling of the face   
  • Rash/hives (urticaria) 
  • Rising anxiety
  • Vomiting
  • Anaphylaxis symptoms
Food allergies alert

Food allergies are one of the most common causes of anaphylaxis, a rare but serious allergic reaction. Even small amounts of food can cause a reaction.1-5 In fact, studies show that people allergic to peanuts have a higher risk of anaphylaxis compared with people who are allergic to other foods, like milk or egg.3

Learn more about anaphylaxis >


250 Million People

Living with Food Allergies

Globally, as many as 250 million people may suffer from food allergies.11 More than 170 foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions.12 Managing food allergies requires dietary changes, of course, but they can affect your lifestyle too. These changes can be challenging and even overwhelming: The constant vigilance necessary to avoid accidental exposure to certain foods can be stressful and frustrating.

It can be difficult to deal with the loss of safety and spontaneity that comes with a food allergy diagnosis. Parties and other social situations should be a time to enjoy and relax; but they can become difficult to negotiate and can potentially be embarrassing. This is the daily reality of
 living with a food allergy or caring for someone who has one.    

Am I Allergic?

Why it’s important to know now

While most people think of children when it comes to food allergies, you can develop an allergy at any age. And many people who say they have some form of a food allergy have diagnosed themselves and haven’t spoken with their healthcare professional about their symptoms. Don’t try to manage the problem on your own. A simple blood test—together with your medical history—can help identify underlying allergen triggers. And knowing if you’re allergic and what you are allergic to may also help you avoid more serious issues in the future. For example, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the ER every 3 minutes.14 Your daily quality of life can improve drastically just from knowing where your symptoms stem from, and managing them appropriately.

Knowing what causes your symptoms can help you get relief. Be sure to consult with your healthcare professional.

  1. Laoprasert N, et al. Anaphylaxis in a milk-allergic child following ingestion of lemon sorbet containing trace quantities of milk. Journal of Food Protection. 1998; 61: 1522-4.
  2. Gern J, Yang E, Evrard H, Sampson HA. Allergic reactions to milk-contaminated ‘non-dairy’ products. N Engl J Med. 1991; 324: 976-9.
  3. Yunginger J, et al. Use of radioimmunoassay to determine the nature, quantity and source of allergenic contamination of sunflower butter. Journal of Food Protection .1983; 46: 625-8. Food Allergy Research & Education www.foodallergy.org
  4.  Jones R., et al. J. Anaphylaxis in a milk-allergic child after ingestion of milk contaminated kosher-pareve-labeled ‘dairy-free’ dessert. Annals of Allergy. 1992; 68: 223-7.
  5. Hourihane J, et al. An evaluation of the sensitivity of subjects with peanut allergy to very low doses of peanut: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge study. J Allergy ClinImmunol.1997; 100: 596-600.
  6. Caubet J, Wang J. Current understanding of egg allergy. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2011 Apr 1; 58(2): 427–443.
  7. Du Toit G, et al. Randomized Trial of Peanut Consumption in Infants at Risk for Peanut Allergy. The New England Journal of Medicine 2015, 1-11.
  8. Grabenhenrich L, et al. Anaphylaxis in children and adolescents: The European Anaphylaxis Registry. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2016;137:1128-37. 
  9. Bock SA, et al. Fatalities due to anaphylactic reactions to foods. J Allergy Clin. Immunol 2001;107:191-3.
  10. Gupta RS, Springston EE, Warrier MR, Smith B, Kumar R, Pongracic J, et al. The prevalence, severity, and distribution of childhood food allergy in the United States. Pediatrics 2011;128:e9-17. (III).
  11. Pawankar R. Allergic diseases and asthma: a global public health concern and a call to action.  World Allergy Organization Journal 2014, 7:12.
  12. Boyce J, et al. Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of food allergy in the United States: Report of the NIAID-sponsored expert panel. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010; 126(6):S1- 58.
  13. The 8 Most Common Food Intolerances, Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-food-intolerances. (Accessed April 2019).
  14. Clark S, et al. Frequency of US emergency department visits for food-related acute allergic reactions. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2011; 127(3):682-683.