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When Food Makes You Sick

Distinguishing allergy from intolerance

Does milk give you migraines? Do eggs make you itch? The answer is yes for some people who develop uncomfortable and possibly life-threatening symptoms from consuming these foods. Eggs can cause allergic reactions and milk can cause intolerance symptoms such as headaches. 

A food allergy is an abnormal response to a food triggered by the body's immune system. The offending food can sometimes cause serious illness and death.

Fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, such as walnuts, and eggs will most often trigger allergic reactions in adults. Children are typically affected by eggs, milk and peanuts. 

However, most people actually suffer from food intolerance, which is often mistaken for a food allergy due to the similarities in symptoms.

Food intolerance results from the body's reaction to enzymes or proteins in the food. It is rarely harmful but can cause unpleasant responses such as migraines or problems with the digestive system. An intolerance to lactose is the most common. 

What's the difference?

Symptoms for either usually begin within two hours of eating. Food allergies can cause a tingling in the mouth, hives, swelling of the eyelids, face, lips or tongue, difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness. Nausea, stomach upset, vomiting and diarrhea may also occur.

But these symptoms typically affect those with food intolerance, too. So what's the difference? 

Food allergies can be triggered by even a small amount of the offending food, and it will occur every time the food is consumed. Food intolerances are usually dose related. People with intolerance issues may not have symptoms unless they eat a large quantity of the food or eat it regularly. 

Consult your doctor if you or your child has had a reaction to any food or drink so that your doctor can determine if an allergy is the actual cause. The only proven treatment for a food allergy is to avoid the food and be ready to deal with any potential exposure to the allergen with antihistamines or epinephrine. 

Adults may be able to tolerate small doses of foods that cause intolerance symptoms, but this can only be determined through trial and error.