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What’s the difference between an allergy and an intolerance?

Allergies and intolerances aren’t uncommon, in fact they’re on the rise and impact many people on a daily basis.

Individuals often live with intolerances and allergies that go undiagnosed, but they can be easily identified through simple blood tests. Diagnosis via a blood test can help people take steps to reduce and avoid symptoms, ultimately improving overall quality of life.

But how do you know if you have an intolerance or an allergy? And what’s the difference?

What’s an allergy?

Allergies are thought to affect more than 1 in 4 people in the UK at some point in their lives. When an individual is allergic to something, the body has a reaction on contact, inhalation, or exposure.

Symptoms can vary in severity from:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Watery and itchy eyes
  • Rashes
  • Shortness of breath

To the most severe reaction of anaphylactic shock (anaphylaxis). Many individuals may mistake milder symptoms, such as sneezing and runny noses as a cold. However, if it’s frequent or persistent, it could be an allergy which can be easily diagnosed via a blood test.

Common allergies include:

  • Grass and pollen (hay fever)
  • Dust mites
  • Animals
  • Medicines
  • Latex
  • Mould
  • Foods

What’s an intolerance?

Intolerance applies to foods. An intolerance means you have difficulty digesting certain foods. The difficulty digesting food, can cause unpleasant physical reactions which tend to start within hours of ingestion.

Symptoms include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating and discomfort
  • Itching
  • Flatulence
  • Diarrhoea

Common intolerances include:

  • Dairy
  • Egg
  • Nut
  • Yeast
  • Gluten*

*An intolerance to gluten differs from Coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is a condition where your immune systems attacks tissue when gluten is consumed, causing long-term harm.

What are the key differences between a food allergy and an intolerance?

A food allergy involves your immune system. Your immune system treats proteins found in the problem food as a threat, triggering symptoms.

Allergy symptoms happen rapidly and even occur after exposure to a small amount or even traces of food. Allergic reactions can be life threatening and trigger anaphylaxis.

Whereas with a food intolerance, your immune system isn’t involved, symptoms tend to happen gradually, and larger amounts of problem food cause the reaction. Intolerances aren’t considered a threat to your life, but allergies can be.

What can I do to identify and manage an allergy?

As we’ve already flagged, allergies can be identified via blood tests. It’s often mistaken that all allergies are developed in childhood, but you can develop an allergy at any point in your life.

Once you know what you’re allergic to, you can actively take steps to avoid the source of your allergies, you can also take tablets to ease persistent symptoms.

These small adjustments can make a big impact on your daily life, helping you manage symptoms and feel like you’re in control of your allergy.

What can I do to identify and manage an intolerance?

Intolerance identification is normally achieved through a process of elimination and monitoring. If you suspect a certain food group is causing you discomfort, you can take steps to cut it out and track whether or not your symptoms improve.

It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what you’re intolerant to, so a first step could be checking whether it’s an allergy with a blood test.

Once you’ve completely ruled out allergy, you could start eliminating certain food groups and ingredients, make notes on any reactions (or lack of) and actively track how you’re feeling.

Ready to complete your allergy test?

We offer a range of health assessments including an allergy test with 300 markers. Your blood will be analysed against 300 different substances, including some of the most common allergens. Find out more and book here.