Intolerance vs. Anaphylaxis: A Clarification

Having multiple severe food allergies has helped me grow a tougher skin to rude questions, dangerous misconceptions, and all around odd questions. My usual response to “What will happen if you eat a cashew or peanut?” is: “it won’t be good for my life, and I have things to do this week, so please keep it away.”

Some questions or myths make me chuckle a little before I answer or clear up some facts, but the one that makes me laugh and frown at the same time is the misconception of intolerances vs. anaphylaxis.

I was once at a cottage with friends, and in preparation for food and drinks I explained in great detail my food allergies and the dangers of cross-contamination. When we arrived and prepared lunch, one of the people there informed us they couldn’t have dairy at all. Diligently, we prepped food to ensure everyone eating would be safe and comfortable, and avoided cross-contamination at all costs. Fast forward to the next day, and iced coffee. I watched the same person put half a carton of 15% creamer into their drinks.  When I tried to warn them, they informed me they could have “cheat days” and, if I wanted to, I could as well.  The only thing I could do was laugh.

horizontal photograph of a cup of coffee with creamer being poured into it

It was funny at the time, but the more I thought about it, the misconceptions about intolerances and food allergies need to be cleared up. I certainly cannot have cheat days at all, and didn’t appreciate that kind of thinking, but instead of getting upset, I got educated. I did my best to inform myself, and anyone who was interested in the differences between intolerance and an allergy.

A food allergy can cause the immune system to react and, in turn, that affects numerous parts in the body. It has multiple symptoms and can range in severity from case to case. In some cases, an allergic reaction to a food can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.

Telling me I could have a cheat day, is like telling Luke Skywalker he could go to the dark side for a bit. It just doesn’t work that way. So in order to clear up some misconceptions and to avoid future awkward situations here is some helpful information to help understand food intolerances a little better.

Some common food intolerances can include:

  • Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food. Lactose intolerance is a common example.
  • Celiac disease.Celiac disease has some features of a true food allergy because it involves the immune system. However, symptoms are mostly gastrointestinal, and people with celiac disease are not at-risk of anaphylaxis. This chronic digestive condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome.This chronic condition can cause cramping, constipation, and diarrhea.
  • Sensitivity to food additives.For example, sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods, and wine can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-allergy/expert-answers/food-allergy/faq-20058538

If you have a reaction after eating certain foods, it’s important to see your doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy. Both may mean you have to cut certain foods from your diet, but it can open up new doors to creative and delicious recipes, as well as problem solving and substitutes in the kitchen, helping create beautiful meals that are safe.

Man with stomach pain holding a glass of milk. Dairy Intolerant person. Lactose intolerance, health care concept.

Having one or the other doesn’t mean you’re better or worse. As a community of food allergies and intolerances, we have to work together to create safe spaces where we all feel comfortable. We should also be working together to help educate and inform each other, so we can bring that knowledge with us wherever we go. No matter what, we have to do our best to accommodate, and help each other because we’re all in this together.

Have you ever gotten a weird or quirky food allergy question or comment? How did you handle it? Let me know below.

– Arianne K.

 

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