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Allergies and Asthma > Food allergy and intolerance

Food allergy and intolerance

What is food allergy?

A food allergy is an immune system response. It occurs when the body mistakes an ingredient in food — usually a protein — as harmful and creates a defense system (IgE antibodies) to fight it. Allergy symptoms develop when the antibodies are battling the "invading" food. The most common food allergies are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, egg whites, soy, and wheat. Food allergies affect about 2 to 4% of adults and 6 to 8% of children. Many food allergies are outgrown, with the exception of peanut allergies.

Symptoms of a food allergy can range from mild to severe and the amount of food necessary to trigger a reaction varies from person to person. Food allergy testing does not always correlate with the severity of symptoms. Symptoms of food allergy may include:
  • Rash or hives
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Itchy skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling of the airways to the lungs
  • Anaphylaxis
See our Allergy Testing page for information on testing for food allergies.

What is food intolerance?

Food intolerance is a digestive system response rather than an immune system response. When something in a food irritates a person's digestive system or when a person is unable to properly digest the food it is considered intolerance. Intolerance to lactose, which is found in milk and other dairy products, is the most common food intolerance and is found in about 10% of Americans. Lactose intolerance is rare in infants and young children. It commonly develops during and briefly after a stomach virus, then resolves. Others develop lactose intolerance as they grow older. Food intolerances are usually dose dependent, the more offending food eaten, the worse the symptoms.

Symptoms of food intolerance include:
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Gas, cramps or bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Irritability or nervousness

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