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What's the difference between a food allergy and sensitivity?

Allergy vs sensitivity.jpg
Most food allergies appear in early childhood, but it is possible to develop one at any age.

If you've been feeling under-the-weather lately and can't determine why - you could be suffering from a food allergy or sensitivity.

But wait, what's the difference?

How your body responds to the food in question is the determining factor in deciding if a reaction is due to an allergy or just a sensitivity. And believe it or not, adverse reactions to food can appear in more ways than one. From stomach pain, to skin rashes, to difficulty breathing, almost anything is possible.

Here's a breakdown of the two conditions, and the best course of action to take if you suspect you might have one.

If you think you have a food sensitivity

Good news for you! Food sensitivities are not life-threatening, said Sherry Farzan, allergist and immunologist with North Shore LIJ Health System in Great Neck, NY to AARP. In most cases, sensitivities are caused by an inability to process or digest a food (also commonly referred to as a food intolerance). This intolerance means your body can't properly break the food down, or your body merely reacts negatively to whatever you've been munching on.

And speaking of side effects, the symptoms of food intolerances can vary greatly. But in most cases, they present as one, or multiple, of the following:

  • Stomach pain or cramping
  • Gas and bloating
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Skin rash
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Joint pain
  • Heartburn

Sound like you? Start keeping a food diary by tracking everything you eat and how soon after eating you have symptoms (or download an app like mySymptoms, which does all the work for you). Once you've found the offending foods, cut them out of your diet completely for at least 10 days, and see how you feel. Then slowly reintroduce the food and monitor your symptoms. If you have a reaction right away, you know not to eat that food.

If you want to take an easier (but more expensive) route, order an at-home food sensitivity test, like MRT or EverlyWell.

If you think you have a food allergy

Not to scare you, but you're at a higher risk of more serious complications. When you have a food allergy, your immune system recognizes the protein in the food as an invader, and reacts by producing antibodies to fight it, therefore causing physical symptoms.

Unlike a food sensitivity, food allergies can lead to death, according to AARP. In severe cases, eating or even touching a tiny piece of the offending food can cause a severe reaction, usually within minutes. The most common side effects of a food allergy are:

  • Hives, usually accompanies by swelling and itching
  • Stomach pain and/or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swelling of the tongue
  • Dizziness
  • Anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that can impair breathing and send the body into shock.

While any food can cause a negative reaction, 90 percent of all reactions are caused by one of these eight foods, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology:

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Most food allergies appear in early childhood, but it is possible to develop one at any age. If you suspect a food allergy, make an appointment with an allergist, who will take tests and make a diagnosis.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is committed to the health and well-being of our viewers, which is why we initiated Sinclair Cares. Every month we'll bring you information about the "Cause of the Month," including topical information, education, awareness, and prevention. May is Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month.