Is it Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Is it Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Peanuts in the shell


What’s the difference? Vets should know.

A food allergy occurs when a food you eat abnormally triggers your body’s immune system.

Food allergies can range from merely irritating to life-threatening.

Food intolerance” is different from a food allergy. Food intolerance is a reaction to a food that does not involve the body’s immune system.

VA’s My HealtheVet can guide you through the important distinctions in the two conditions.

Food allergy

Sometimes even a very small amount of a food can trigger such a response. The body may respond to the food allergen with such symptoms as digestive problems, hives or impaired airway.

In some cases, the reaction may be as extreme as to be life threatening, with a reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe whole body reaction to an allergen.

Food allergies can range from merely irritating to life-threatening.

Food intolerance

While the reaction may feel as if it is a food allergy, if the immune system is not responding, it is food intolerance. Sometimes it is an additive to a food item that may trigger the intolerance symptoms.

Symptoms and Reactions


Symptoms of allergic reactions are generally seen on the skin (hives, itchiness, swelling of the skin). Gastrointestinal symptoms may include vomiting and diarrhea. Respiratory symptoms may accompany skin and gastrointestinal symptoms, but don’t usually occur alone.

Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that happens very quickly. Symptoms of anaphylaxis may include difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness.

Don’t wait to see if your symptoms go away or get better on their own. If you have any of these symptoms, particularly after eating, seek medical care immediately (call 911).

Without immediate treatment — an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) and expert care — anaphylaxis can be fatal. Follow-up care by an allergist / immunologist, often referred to as an allergist, is essential.

Veterans should ask their VA health care provider about treatment for food allergies and food intolerance. Find your VA health facility.

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