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Many people describe themselves as having 'allergies' but true allergy is thankfully still fairly rare. Unfortunately the distinction between allergy and intolerance is not clear even among health books, the media and alternative therapists. The term 'food allergy' is often used to include any kind of sensitivity or intolerance but there are some distinctions that can be made.

True Allergy

True allergy can be life threatening. The immune system wrongly identifies a usually innocent substance as a threat and launches a full out attack on a substance as soon as it comes into contact with the body. Symptoms develop quickly (usually within minutes but sometimes up to one hour) and can include flushing, tingling and then maybe swelling of lips, mouth and throat, difficulty in breathing and sometimes vomiting. A rash may appear and because of a dramatic fall in blood pressure the sufferer may collapse. This is called anaphylactic shock and in these cases it is imperative that medical personnel see the sufferer as soon as possible and an ambulance should be called. Those who have these true life threatening allergies must take care to avoid the allergen and very often will carry medication for an emergency. The more common food allergies include peanuts; shellfish, fish, eggs and other allergens include bee or wasp stings.


Food intolerance (or 'sensitivity') is far more common than true allergy. It can produce a range of symptoms from mild to more severe and although can be detrimental to health it is not normally life threatening. Food intolerance is still a controversial topic and diagnosis as its causes are not as well established or understood like true allergy. Unlike true allergy it appears that there may be many causal factors involved and it is likely to be a combination of factors that lead to it rather than just one. Food intolerance causes a very wide range of symptoms. In the digestive system there can be bloating, nausea, wind, pain, diarrhoea or constipation. The skin may be involved and show rash and become itchy or the nose and sinuses may become blocked, runny or irritated. There can be headache or migraine or general symptoms such as fatigue, aching muscles or joint pains. There may be rapid weight loss or gain. Sufferers may show just one or two symptoms or a whole host of symptoms and this is why it can be difficult to diagnose. Foods may not be the only suspects in these cases as sensitivity to pollution, pollens, chemicals, animals, dust, dust mite, and moulds for example may also cause these symptoms. Another confusion can be that symptoms may show within the hour or days after contact with the offending item. Also intolerances may be 'the tip of the iceberg' and be due to other underlying health issues, stress or on occasion due to sensitivity caused by medication.

By Donna Milligan ITEC dip GPP
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