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The difference between allergy and intolerance

difference between allergy and intolerance

People often confuse between allergies and intolerances, and this is perfectly understandable. The two conditions share many similarities, including triggers, causes, and symptoms.

However, the main difference between these conditions is the underlying pathophysiology.

In this article, we will briefly define the two conditions and highlight their differences.

What is an allergy?

As we discussed in our previous article about allergies, an allergy is caused by a severe immune reaction towards a food, drug, and even objects.

The hypersensitivity reaction launches after the immune system encounters the allergen for a second time. Signs and symptoms are diverse and include hives, skin rash, congested nose, itchy eyes, and digestive symptoms (e.g. nausea, vomiting, diarrhea).

Researchers estimate that 32 million Americans have some sort of food allergy.

Food allergies are triggered by the ingestion of the allergen regardless of how much you consume. One peanut could be enough to start a full-blown anaphylactic reaction.

What is an intolerance?

The best example of food intolerances is lactose intolerance, which affects a large portion of the general population.

The exact pathophysiology of food intolerances is inherently different from food allergies, as there are many causes that don’t involve an immune reaction.

The most common causes of food intolerances include:

  • Enzymatic deficiency
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Celiac disease
  • Chronic stress


As you can see, these two conditions are quite different, even though they share many features. Another similarity between allergies and intolerances is that both conditions can use the help of antigenic testing to identify their cause.

Of course, if the intolerance is caused by an enzymatic deficiency, the main way to make the diagnosis is by removing that food element from your diet and document if your symptoms improve.


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