How do you know if you have an allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance to something? What's the difference or are they all the same?
While they are not the same, I like to think of them as cousins. They are in the same larger family, but when you get down to each smaller family unit, they are different.
At the end of this is an analogy to help you understand the difference better.
Let's go over each one starting with allergies.
What is an Allergy?
An allergy is a reaction to something (food, grass, pollen, smoke, perfume, etc.) where the body thinks the allergen is something bad and responds with an immune system response. While some people will react within minutes, you may not react until up to an hour or so later as noted here, here, here, here, and here.
What are symptoms of an Allergy?
- Swelling of the nasal passages
- Allergic sinusitis
- Redness and itching of the eyes
- Asthma attacks
- Swelling of the airway
- Ear pain
- Impaired hearing
- Rashes (eczema and hives)
- Burning skin sensation
- Hot feeling skin
- Abdominal pain
You can read more from our friends at Wikipedia.
What is a sensitivity?
A sensitivity is an unpleasant reaction to something but it doesn't include the immune system response.
What are the symptoms of a sensitivity?
- Abdominal cramps
- Acid Reflux
- Headaches or migraines
What is an Intolerance?
An intolerance is when the body lacks an enzyme to break down a food. The ones that come to mind with this is lactose intolerance and gluten intolerance, or celiac disease.
What are the symptoms of an intolerance?
Symptoms of food intolerance include:
- Rapid Breathing
- Headache/ Migraine
- Burning sensation on the skin
- Tightness across the face and chest
- Asthma-like symptoms
- Allergy-like reactions
- Mouth ulcers
- Abdominal cramps
- Intermittent diarrhea
An Analogy to help you understand
In a normal situation with nothing wrong...
Let's say you are in a cabin. The cabin is your body and you are hanging out. Hanging out with you are a group of men and a group of women.
Not trying to be sexist... However, the guys are your immune system. They protect your cabin (your body) from bad things happening to it. They keep the colds out by weather proofing everything and keep robbers (viruses) out by beating them up and kicking them out.
Your women friends hanging out with you are your group of enzymes. When food (friends) comes over to visit, they help you digest everything. They explain things to you by breaking it down and helping it make sense to the cabin.
And all is peaceful.
If you have intolerances...
Okay, so you are in your cabin and your friend, we'll call him Hank, comes over to visit.
Your guy group greets him with high fives. They go back to weather proofing the windows and beating up robbers.
However, your women group isn't there. At all. They just don't exist. Hank talks (that's you eating) and nothing makes sense because your women (enzymes) aren't there to help break it down for you.
You get nervous and start shaking, you heart palpitates, you start feeling like you're having an asthma attack, your gut hurts, and you run to the bathroom with Hank in tow (Hank is weird). You get diarrhea while Hank is still babbling on and on about how great milk and sandwiches are.
This is an intolerance to Hank.
If you have sensitivities...
So, you are still in your cabin. Your guy group (immune system) is weatherproofing the doors and the women group (enzymes) are having a lovely conversation.
Hank walks in and the guys say "HEY!" and go back to weatherproofing your house. The women say "HEY!" too. This time they are there.
Hank starts talking to you (that's you eating again) and the girls jump right in to break everything down for you. They are doing a good job at it too.
However, everything Hank says makes you cry, makes you irritable, makes you dizzy, or makes you want to take a nap. So you go to take a nap and Hank gives you a lovely dose of heartburn, and then describes it to you. The women break it down for you. You get nauseous from the description. Great job, Ladies!
This is a sensitivity to Hank.
If you have an allergy...
You're in your cabin with the men group (immune system) and the women group (enzymes) and Hank comes over.
Only this time, the women go to say hi only to be trampled by the men group. WTF?
The men group (your immune system) doesn't see Hank as a harmless friend this time. And no matter how much you like Hank, the men group doesn't see him like that.
They attack him and beat the crap out of Hank. You stand back in a little bit of a daze because it makes you feel off. Your skin starts to burn, you break out in a rash, you have trouble breathing, and you make a mad dash to the bathroom and don't make it because you have diarrhea, then you start vomiting and swelling in your face... It's bad!
In comes your other friend, we'll call him Ben (short for Benadryl). Ben comes in, starts calming down the men group, and keeps them at bay while Hank flops around on the floor for a while. Once Hank recovers, Ben will keep the men group back while Hank sneaks out the back door (usually as diarrhea). Once Hank is completely out of the house, Ben leaves and all goes back to normal. Sort of.
You're still sore because the men inadvertently beat you too. Oops. In addition, you'll feel like death warmed over for a couple of days to a week.
THAT is an allergy.
Sometimes the men group (immune system) attacks not only Hank, but also the entire house in an effort to get rid of Hank. They tear down walls, beat you to a bloody pulp, destroy the furniture, break all your knick-knacks, and set the house on fire. This would be anaphylaxis.
You can read what anaphylaxis feels like on my earlier post.
Does it matter what we call it?
It does matter for medical purposes and for the purposes of what is happening to our body. It also helps you in that you will know how to treat your reaction. Do you avoid the food like the plague? Make sure you have lactaid before you drink a cup of milk? Or do you save it for a special occasion and only eat it once a month, or once a year, or only when Grandma brings over your favorite pickled beets?
Does it matter to this blog writer? Not really. While this blog is written mostly about allergies, any of these can (and will) make your life miserable.
That is why this blog is for anyone experiencing the nasty side effects of allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances. This blog is for all of you.