I have had an allergy to peanuts ever since I was tiny. Sadly, I can’t eat anything that has even had a peanut breathe on it, so intense is my reaction. Because of this, when I introduced solids to my little kiddo Jake I was so careful to avoid any potential food allergens. Luckily, he never inherited my hives – although he has a major intolerance to cow dairy. While I don’t have to worry about exposing him to milk, I still have to be careful. So what’s the difference between an allergy and an intolerance?
An allergy is like a breakdown in the immune system. The immune system “misreads” the allergen as an invader, and attacks it. Food allergies are pretty rare: less than 1% of our population suffer true allergies. For that 1% like me who have an actual allergy, it means carrying an epi-pen for life. Most people have intolerances, which can mean a night spent with a box of Kleenex or a campout by the toilet.
An allergy can best be described as a lightning fast response by the body to a perceived invader. Signs/symptoms are typically immediate, dramatic and visible: sneezing, vomiting, migraines, watering eyes, flushed skin or rashing, swelling tissue, hives, swollen throat or vocal chords, difficulty breathing, seizure, loss of consciousness – in most severe cases, anaphylactic shock which requires emergency intervention. Without that, there can be death.
Anaphylactic shock is when an allergic individual’s tissues become hypersensitive and swell up 2 or 3 times their normal size. A stuffy nose is a classic symptom. While a stuffy nose is a nuisance it is not serious, and can often be remedied with anti-histamine. When swelling happens to the tongue, mouth or throat, though, it can be extremely dangerous: it can impede breathing.
An intolerance is a rather slow onset reaction: signs/symptoms can appear hours, days or even weeks later. The intolerance is the body’s inability to process a particular food; it is also thought to be an immune system response: when the gastro-intestinal system is unable to produce enzymes for digestion, the food passes unprocessed and lingers in gut, fermenting, and producing gas. Blech.
Intolerances can manifest as nutritional deficiencies in the short term, but if left untreated they can lead to serious illness and tissue damage. Which is why I avoid giving Jake milk at all costs.
So how can we avoid triggering food allergens/intolerances? Well, we could grow your own food and bake our own bread. But that’s not an option for most of us. Thanks to the great USFDA, we have labelling regulations that ensure that consumers know what’s in our food, and what to avoid. According to the US FDA Food Allergen Labelling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004
, grocery labels must clearly identify the source of all ingredients that are – or are derived from – the 8 most common food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. If you suffer from intolerances or allergies, make reading labels second-nature.
And at the very least, carry an epi-pen!
Now, anyone know what can I do about my in-law intolerance? A prize to the winning reader email.