Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerance: What’s the Difference?

Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerance: What’s the Difference?

If your child reacts negatively to certain foods, it is possible that they might have a food allergy or a food intolerance—but how do you determine which one it is? Although they may appear similar, it is important to recognise the differences as allergies can be severe and even life-threatening.

Read on to learn more about allergies and intolerances, and how to differentiate them. 

What Are Food Allergies?

An food allergic reaction occurs when the immune system reacts unusually to a food protein. It releases chemicals called histamines that cause symptoms in different parts of the body, such as runny nose, wheezing, vomiting, abdominal pains or rashes and hives.

Food allergies usually present early in childhood. However, less commonly some food allergies can appear later in life. It is important to monitor your child’s reactions to new foods as they are introduced in the weaning journey.

What Are Food Intolerances?

While allergies are an immunologic response, intolerances are usually isolated digestive issues that cause gastrointestinal discomfort. They occur when the body cannot properly break down certain foods due to a lack of enzymes, which enable the processing of certain food substances.

Intolerances often develop and worsen as your child grows. You may refer to our article on allergies in children for more information on allergies.

What Are Their Signs and Symptoms?

Food allergies can present with a wide range of symptoms. Some common symptoms include:

  • Hives or itchy rashes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pains
  • Swelling of throat, tongue, or lips
  • Lightheadedness
  • Anaphylaxis

Symptoms of food allergies oftern come on suddenly, soon after ingestion of the food. Allergic reactions can occur even when only a small amount of food has been ingested. These reactions range from mild to severe and life-threatening.

On the other hand, because food intolerances indicate that the body cannot properly process certain food substances, symptoms are primarily related to the gut. Some common symptoms include:

  • Bloatedness
  • Gassiness
  • Heartburn
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

Unlike allergies, these symptoms can come on gradually and may only occur after a large amount of food has been ingested. While these symptoms are inconvenient and uncomfortable, they are not life-threatening and do not require urgent medical attention.

Keep a Food Diary

It would help to keep a food diary to record what your child eats and when their symptoms appear. If you do notice that a particular food or ingredient consistently gives them stomach discomfort, this might be related to an intolerance. If consuming the food item leads to symptoms affecting various body parts, do stop the food and consult a doctor as this might be an allergic reaction.

Talk to Your Child’s Doctor

If you suspect that your child has allergies, bringing them to a paediatrician for an allergy test is best. There are two main types of allergy tests:

  • Skin test: A small amount of the suspected allergen is applied to the skin. The doctor will check whether there is a reaction.
  • Blood test: A blood sample will be taken. The doctor will check the level of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies in the blood.

At first glance, symptoms of food allergies and food intolerances might seem very similar. However, they are both distinct conditions that can be differentiated with an assessment. While intolerances are uncomfortable, they should not significantly affect your child’s well-being. On the other hand, allergies can be severe and may require urgent medical attention.

If you’re looking for a paediatrician who specialises in allergies in Singapore, visit Petite Practice, a paediatric clinic in Katong. Our paediatrician provides paediatric and allergy services, including allergy testing for children.

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