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Allergies Health Center

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Food Allergy Myths and Facts

By Kimberly Goad
WebMD Feature

You're done with your restaurant meal and it's time to the pay the bill. But before you even reach for your wallet, you get an itchy feeling down your back. Can't be food allergies, you think. Don't they go away when you become an adult?

There's a lot of confusion out there about eating and allergies. Learn how to separate truth from fiction so you can sit down to the dinner table with confidence.

Recommended Related to Allergies

Living With Severe Allergies

Allergies affect more than 50 million people in the United States -- the poor souls who sniffle, sneeze, and get all clogged up when face to face with the allergen (or allergens) that set them off. For many, allergies are seasonal and mild, requiring nothing more than getting extra tissue or taking a decongestant occasionally. For others, the allergy is to a known food, and as long as they avoid the food, no problem. But for legions of others adults, allergies are so severe it interferes with...

Read the Living With Severe Allergies article > >

Myth No. 1: Food allergy is the same as "intolerance" or "sensitivity."

There are similarities, for sure. Allergy, intolerance, and sensitivity are a little bit like siblings. They all belong to the same "family" of bad reactions to food. But there are big differences.

An allergy happens when the immune system, your body's defense against germs, has a reaction to a particular food. It can be mild, like an itchy feeling or hives. Sometimes you get severe symptoms -- called anaphylaxis -- like trouble breathing, a swollen tongue, or dizziness.
Food intolerance means your body is missing an enzyme you need to digest some type of food. If you're lactose intolerant, for instance, you don't have enough lactase, an enzyme that lets you digest dairy products. If you're gluten intolerant, you can't process gluten, which is found in some grains including wheat, barley, and rye.

What happens if you eat something you're "intolerant" to? You might get some of the same symptoms as a food allergy, but it can't trigger anaphylaxis. Over time, however, this reaction can damage the lining of your small intestine and can keep you from absorbing the nutrients you need from your food.
Food sensitivity is different. It is something of a catch-all category for an unpleasant, though not serious, reaction from a food. Think headaches from having too much chocolate or acid reflux triggered by spicy foods.

"Food sensitivities are certainly an inconvenience, and they make you feel lousy, but they're not life-threatening," says allergist Marc McMorris, MD, medical director of the University of Michigan Food Allergy Clinic.

What allergy, intolerance, and sensitivity do have in common is how you prevent them. Your best strategy: stay away! Avoid any food that's got the problem ingredient in it.

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