The mealtime landscape can be a perilous one when sidestepping the landmines of food allergies and intolerances. But what is the difference between the two? Should we be concerned about one over the other?
Because the symptoms of these allergies and intolerances are not all mutually exclusive, understanding what kind of reaction a child is having can be difficult. Both can result in nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, along with their own unique symptoms. How can we tell the difference?
What is an allergy?
Food allergies result from the body mistaking certain proteins in the given food as harmful invaders. In response, the immune system releases antibodies to fight and remove these supposed invaders by triggering histamines and other chemicals to release into the blood. These chemicals are what are behind the allergy signs and symptoms that we commonly see. Such signs and symptoms often occur relatively quickly and suddenly, and can vary from mild to life threatening. They will occur every time the food allergen is eaten and can be triggered by very small amounts of said food.
Adverse effects largely exclusive to an allergic reaction include:
- Skin – itchiness, bumps, hives, or rash
- Respiratory – trouble breathing, shortness of breath
- Pain – chest
- Anaphylaxis – drastic reduction in blood pressure, closing of the throat, severe difficulty breathing/swallowing
What Is An Intolerance?
Food intolerances are gastrointestinal in nature, and occur when the body can’t properly digest what is eaten or when the food acts as an irritant in the digestive tract. Most commonly, a lack of certain digestive enzymes in the GI tract, resulting in incomplete digestion, is the cause of an intolerance. Such is the case with lactose intolerance, which is caused by a lack of the enzyme lactase. Symptoms resulting from an intolerance tend to emerge more slowly and may only occur when eating a large amount of the food in question, or only if it is eaten often. Intolerances are not life threatening and tend to be more manageable than allergies in that the food may still be eaten.
Common Symptoms Of Intolerances Are:
- Esophageal – heartburn
- Stomach/Intestinal – cramps, bloating, gas
- Mood – irritability
- Pain - Headaches
Common Food Allergies
- Tree nuts
- Cow’s Milk
Common Food Intolerances
- High Histamine (alcohols, soy, mushrooms, dried fruit, etc)
What To Do If You Think Your Child Has An Allergy/Intolerance
First and foremost, always consult your doctor. If you suspect your child has a food allergy, discontinue consumption of the questionable food and have your child tested for allergies. Your doctor may refer you to an allergist. If your child is diagnosed with an allergy, dependent on the severity, it may be extremely important to remain vigilant in monitoring his or her consumption by reading food ingredient labels, informing your school, and ordering carefully at restaurants.
Once it has been determined that your child has a food intolerance, a discussion can be had with your pediatrician about strategies to mitigate negative effects. In some cases, limiting frequency and/or portioning may be effective. In other cases, such as with lactose intolerance, an enzyme supplement may be used.
It can be a bit scary seeing the seemingly meteoric rise in reported childhood allergies in the US, which is all the more reason to see an allergist to confirm your child has an allergy or intolerance. Managing these conditions can be difficult, but only after we know the precise cause of any symptoms can we best devise a plan of action. Knowledge is half the battle!