There are two kinds of sensitivity to foods – food allergy and food intolerance.

An allergy is where the immune system reacts to certain types of food as though they are a threat to the body. This can cause severe, sometimes life-threatening, symptoms that can occur almost instantly and can leave the sufferer feeling very ill.

An intolerance does not involve the immune system and will generally not cause such a severe reaction, or act quite as quickly. Often the symptoms of an intolerance develop over a period of time, leaving the sufferer feeling generally sluggish and unwell.

This article on food allergy and food intolerance is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

What are the symptoms?

Food allergy can cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Swelling of the lips and throat
  • Red, itchy eyes, and runny nose
  • Skin rash or itchy skin

In severe cases, food allergy causes what’s known as anaphylactic shock, which affects the whole body within a very short space of time and can be extremely dangerous.

Food intolerance tends to produce less dramatic symptoms, which may only be noticed over a period of time. These include:

  • Bloating
  • IBS and diarrhoea
  • Anaemia
  • Unexplained weight loss

Gluten intolerance (known as celiac disease) can also cause tiredness, constipation, and skin problems, as well as growth problems in children.

The first step

If you suspect that you’re allergic or intolerant to certain foods, it’s important to consult your GP. There are many ‘High Street’ allergy tests available, and many ‘specialist’ practitioners, but many of these use unproven methods and may not consider your health as a whole.

Changing your diet

You should never simply cut out a food or food group without professional nutritional advice or you may find your diet will lack essential vitamins or minerals. With expert advice, you should be able to eliminate the problem foods and still eat a balanced diet. This is particularly true with small children, especially those who are lactose (milk sugar) intolerant. Without the right alternative diet, there is a risk of malnutrition and growth problems, even in an otherwise healthy child.

By law, any foods which contain known allergens – such as nuts, milk (lactose) or wheat (gluten) – or which are prepared in areas that risk contamination from these allergens, must carry a warning to that effect. However, you should always check the ingredients carefully just to make sure that the food product is safe for you.

Many supermarkets have a specialist range of ‘free-from’ products to make shopping easier for sufferers. It’s important to note that ‘wheat free’ and ‘gluten free’ are not the same thing. Wheat free products may still contain gluten from other cereals, while gluten-free products may still contain other wheat proteins.

Eating out and eating take-away food can be more difficult for allergy and intolerance sufferers. If you have a severe allergy, you should talk to the restaurant staff to make sure that your meal is safe. This is particularly important with Asian dishes, where nuts and nut oils are frequently used for flavouring. If in doubt, you should always err on the side of caution.

When travelling your airline or tour operator should offer special meals to meet your dietary requirements, however foreign restaurants may present more of a problem. Make sure you know the appropriate foreign phrases to communicate your needs.

Sensible precautions

There are several ways that you can reduce the risks from your food allergy or intolerance:

  • Make sure that your friends, family and work colleagues all understand clearly what you can and cannot eat.
  • Impress upon them the importance of catering for your special dietary needs. If they do not suffer themselves, they may not realise how dangerous your reaction could be.
  • Make sure they also know how to recognise the symptoms, what they mean and what they should do to help you.
  • If you’re at risk from anaphylactic shock, make sure everyone knows what to do in case of an attack. You may be given an inhaler of anti-histamine, or in severe cases, a pen that will inject you with adrenaline. Make sure the people close to you know how to use them – they could save your life.
  • Carry your allergy details with you in a medical emergency bracelet or on a card in your wallet in case you’re unable to communicate this in an emergency.

The Food Standards Agency has produced two highly informative fact sheets on food intolerance and food allergy. These can be found at:​

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