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Food allergy vs food intolerance – what’s the difference?

Food allergies have been rising in Australia for years. So have claims of increase food intolerances too.

But what is the difference between these two terms? And which is more likely to be fatal?

In essence a food allergy is your body’s immune system reacting to a food or drink. There doesn’t have to be anything particularly toxic or harmful in what you ate or drank and in most cases people who are not allergic like you, could eat or drink the exact same thing and have no reaction at all.

Food intolerance occurs when your body has a chemical reaction to you consuming a certain food or drink. It is as if your body considers something you ate or drank to have some sort of toxin in it, that it doesn’t like.

The problem is that the symptoms for mild to moderate food allergies and intolerances can be very similar. But always remember that food ALLERGIES involve the immune system and can lead to a condition of severe allergic reaction called ANAPHYLAXIS which can be fatal if not treated quickly and properly. Whereas food intolerance is likely to lead to much milder reactions that are almost never fatal.

Symptoms of food intolerance can include:

· headaches, including migraines

· nervousness or tremors

· sweating, palpitations or rapid breathing (NOT wheezy, raspy breathing)

· stomach cramps and/or diarrhoea or other digestive complaints

· skin reactions like hives or rashes (also seen in allergic reactions)

Compared to food intolerance, you can tell if someone is having a severe allergic reaction to food or drink if they start doing any of the following within minutes of eating or drinking:

· They start having trouble breathing or start “wheezing”

· Their tongue starts swelling

· They have swelling or tightness in their throat

· They have difficulty talking or their voice goes hoarse

· They develop a sudden persistent cough

· They become very dizzy, light-headed or suddenly collapse or pass out

· They become pale and floppy (common in young children).

As you can see, an allergic reaction is much more serious. To handle someone who is suffering from Anaphylaxis requires special first aid training. We run courses on Asthma and Anaphylaxis training which you can book here.

For more information on first aid for Anaphylaxis situations please read our previous blog


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