It might start with an embarrassing grumbling sound from deep within your stomach. Perhaps you feel the need to excuse yourself and quickly make your way to the nearest restroom. It might even keep you up at night.
If you’ve had a sudden reaction to something you ate, you might worry it is a sign of a food allergy. However, you may have an intolerance — or sensitivity — to a certain food instead.
It is important to understand the difference between the two. While a food intolerance to something you ate can make your feel uncomfortable, a food allergy can lead to a serious or life-threatening reaction.
“A food intolerance response takes place in the digestive system,” says Dr. Ashika Odhav, an allergist and immunologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “It occurs when you are unable to properly break down a food. A food allergy involves the immune system; your body creates a systemic reaction to that food that could be life-threatening.”
Symptoms of food intolerance
Common symptoms of food intolerance include the following:
- Intestinal gas
- Abdominal pain
According to Dr. Odhav, those with food intolerance can usually eat small amounts of the food without causing a problem. In the case of an intolerance to lactose — the sugar found in milk and other milk-based dairy products, such as cheese — you can take an enzyme medication to assist with the lactose breakdown in your intestines.
While lactose intolerance is the most common type — affecting close to 30 million people in the U.S. — the consumption of other foods may also cause an uncomfortable reaction. These include:
- Egg whites
- Aspartame (an artificial sweetener)
Foods high in “FODMAPs” (fermentable, oligosaccharide, disaccharide, monosaccharide and polyol carbohydrates), can also cause digestive issues. This can include certain fruits, honey, wheat, garlic, onions and legumes.
Unfortunately, there is neither specific testing for a food intolerance, nor a cure. The only therapy is removing the food from your diet.
Experts recommend eliminating the foods that might be causing you distress from your diet for three weeks and slowly reintroducing each food one at a time. Take note of the foods that cause a reaction and try to avoid or greatly decrease the consumption of them in the future.
Signs of a serious food allergy
Dr. Odhav recommends that you seek medical attention if you’re having signs of an allergic reaction to a food. These include hives, swelling of the skin, respiratory symptoms and recurrent vomiting.
“You should also seek care if there is blood in your stools or you experience recurrent vomiting and diarrhea, low blood pressure, loss of consciousness, or food impaction in your throat after eating a certain food to rule out other diseases,” she says.
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about reactions you’ve had to food. Together you can come up with an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan as needed.