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Knowing The Difference Between An Allergy & Intolerance

Although the symptoms of an allergic reaction and intolerance can be similar, they have distinctive effects on your body.

A lot of our patients comment on having a reaction to their food (usually presenting as an upset stomach or diarrhoea) and automatically think that they’re allergic. However, as doctors we know that it’s more than likely to be a food intolerance. When you’re having an allergic reaction, the symptoms are commonly more severe and sometimes life-threatening

It’s important to know the differences between an intolerance and an allergy as a means of preparing for them.

Signs of intolerance

We often hear of patients saying their food “doesn’t agree” with them. Commonly mentioning that milk or dairy products gives them wind and they tend to avoid dairy products altogether. The common culprits of intolerances are:

  • Foods and food additives
  • Medications – causing gastrointestinal upset, headaches, and dizziness
  • Certain ingredients in some foods – may create symptoms such as cramping, diarrhoea or vomiting within a few hours.

How are allergic reactions different?

Allergy symptoms are far more intense and generally tend to occur between 30 mins – 2 hours afterwards. If you have an allergic reaction to peanuts or soy, you are likely to have a rapid, severe reaction. This is known as anaphylaxis and even small amounts of these products can cause the following:

  • A rash or hives
  • Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing

An allergy is meditated by your immune system and can affect multiple organs. Allergies can be fatal if they’re not treated immediately with adrenaline injections.

The common causes of an allergic reaction:

  • Drugs – including penicillin and other antibiotics
  • Insect venom from stings
  • Environmental factors – pollen, mould, dust, pets

Are allergies hereditary?

Lots of our patients ask whether allergies are passed on through family connections or whether they’re developed over time.

There is a higher risk of environmental allergies and asthma in children if one or both parents have allergies or asthma.

For most people – allergies become apparent in early childhood, especially those from foods. But sometimes, they can develop later in life. Recent research suggests that introducing potentially allergenic foods in early life could be beneficial to help prevent the development of allergies in high-risk infants.

Do intolerances develop over time?

An intolerance is sometimes genetic but can also develop over time and can be variable even in the same person with the same food.

For example – lactose intolerance – as you get older, your body may produce less of the enzyme that helps to digest lactose in dairy products.

How to diagnose an allergy or intolerance?

If you think you may have an allergy or are intolerant to something, it’s worthwhile speaking to a specialist. At The Whitehall Clinic, we have thousands of blood tests to detect allergies and we can use these to pinpoint elevated levels of allergy antibodies that your immune system produces.

When it comes to intolerances, it’s not as simple as carrying out a blood test to analyse this. However, our clinical team have years of experience in diagnosing and co-developing plans with patients to manage their intolerances.  We often suggest our patients keep a food diary and that way we can identify foods that consistently give you discomfort.

What the best way to manage reactions?

Our clinical team always suggest that avoidance is the best prevention method for most allergies and intolerances.

Medication can assist with more subtle cases of intolerance. For examples, over-the-counter medications may help you to enjoy foods containing dairy if you are lactose intolerant.

Antihistamines can stop the symptoms of environmental allergies. 

We always recommend to patients the importance of carrying an Epipen with them if they have a known specific allergy.

If you think you’re suffering with an allergy or an intolerance and would like help managing this, please get in touch. We provide blood testing from as little as £75!