Saturday 16 March 2013


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Both food intolerances and allergies have similar symptoms of digestive problems; including diarrhoea, bloating and stomach cramps. However, a food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy and there are key differences between them.

Food intolerance

A food intolerance is an adverse reaction to a food or ingredient, occurring every time the food is eaten and particularly if large quantities are consumed. It may be caused by difficulties digesting certain substances, such as lactose. This is usually because the body doesn't produce enough of the particular chemical or enzyme that's needed for digestion of that food.

Food intolerances are rarely harmful but may cause unpleasant symptoms including nausea, bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Unlike an allergy, a food intolerance is never life-threatening as no allergic reaction takes place.

Symptoms can begin hours or days after eating or drinking the food in question. The severity of symptoms varies depending on the amount of enzyme the person makes, and how much of the food has been consumed.

One of the most common food intolerances is triggered by cow's milk, which contains lactose. Many people have a shortage of the enzyme lactase which breaks down the lactose to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Another common example is a deficiency of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. Drinking even small amounts of alcohol can make affected people feel unwell. Some people have adverse reactions to chemical preservatives and additives in food and drinks, such as sulphites, benzoates, salicylates, monosodium glutamate, caffeine, aspartame and tartrazine.

Unlike a food allergy, the immune system is not activated when suffering from a food intolerance. Neither is a food intolerance the same as food poisoning, which is caused by toxic substances that would cause symptoms in anyone who ate the food.

The easiest test for a food intolerance is to remove the food from your diet. Wait and see if symptoms improve, then try reintroducing the food. If symptoms return, an intolerance is likely.

Food allergy

A food allergy occurs when the body's immune system reacts abnormally to specific foods, mistaking protein in the food as a threat to the body. As a result it releases a number of chemicals to prevent what it sees as an infection taking hold. It is these chemicals that cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Common symptoms include an itchy sensation inside the mouth, throat or ears; raised itchy red skin rash and swelling of the face and around the eyes, lips, tongue and the roof of the mouth.
Any food could cause an allergic reaction, but there are certain foods that are responsible for most food allergies. In adults common food allergies include fruits, vegetables and shellfish. Children are more commonly allergic to milk, eggs, fish and shellfish. Nut allergies are relatively common in both children and adults.

Allergic reactions are often mild, but they can sometimes be very serious. In the most serious cases, a person has a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) which can be life-threatening. Antihistamine can help relieve the symptoms of a mild to moderate allergic reaction, whilst adrenaline is an effective treatment for anaphylaxis.

Most food allergies affect younger children aged under the age of three, although most children will outgrow food allergies to milk, eggs, soya and wheat by the time they start school. Food allergies that develop during adulthood, or persist into adulthood, are likely to be lifelong allergies. Peanut allergies are more persistent, with an estimated four out of five children remaining allergic to peanuts for the rest of their life.

It is still uncertain why people develop allergies to food, although often people with a food allergy have other allergic conditions such as asthma, hay fever and eczema. For reasons that are unclear, rates of food allergies have risen sharply in the last 20 years.

There is no treatment to cure a food allergy. The best way of preventing an allergic reaction is to identify the type of food that causes the allergy and then avoid it in future.

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