Many people suffer from food allergies and intolerances that can make it difficult to enjoy meals. It's not easy to know which allergy you're suffering from or what type of food may be causing the reaction. Take a closer look at the differences between allergies and intolerances, as well as some of the most common warning signs that can help you determine what foods may be causing you discomfort.

Food Allergy Symptoms

When you experience a food allergy, your immune system is reacting to a particular type of food. This type of immune reaction can be severe and even threaten your life, so it's important to identify what is causing the reaction and avoid that food. When you experience an allergic reaction, two components of your immune system are at work. The first is mast cells, which are found throughout all the tissues in your body but are more prevalent in the digestive tract, skin, nose, lungs, and throat.

The second component at work is the immunoglobulin E (IgE), which is a protein that moves through your blood. IgE is also known as an antibody, so when you eat something your body feels is threatening, the cells will produce more IgE in response to the consumption. This protein attaches to the mast cell surfaces, although it won't cause a reaction right away. Instead, the IgE remains on the mast cells, waiting for the next time you eat that food.

The allergy-causing food will then interact with the antibody, resulting in the release of chemicals. One of those chemicals is histamine, and all of them can cause different symptoms. As a result, the exposure to certain foods may cause severe reactions. You could experience digestive troubles such as stomach discomfort, vomiting, or diarrhea. Some people have topical reactions like hives, skin rashes, or itching. If the allergens spread to the blood, they can cause your blood pressure to go up or down; while in the lungs, the resulting symptom could be wheezing.  

The production of these chemicals can also cause parts of the body to swell up in response to allergy-causing foods. The swelling can become life-threatening, especially if it happens in the throat or chest, restricting the airway. If this reaction occurs, you may need a shot of epinephrine, which narrows the blood vessels and opens the airways in your lungs. The medication can also reverse other symptoms of an allergic reaction, including hives, itching, blood pressure changes, and wheezing. 

Food Intolerance or Sensitivity Symptoms

When your body is intolerant or sensitive to a particular food, you may experience a different type of reaction. Instead of an allergy, your body will react with an inability to digest the food. For example, many people suffer from an intolerance to lactose, a sugar found in milk. The body uses an enzyme called lactase to break down that particular sugar, but if your body doesn't have enough lactase, it isn't able to digest it. As a result, the bacteria in the stomach eat the lactose, creating gas that often leads to stomach pain, bloating, and even diarrhea.

Lactose intolerance is one of the most common food intolerances, with an estimated one out of 10 people being affected by it. However, people can be intolerant to other foods as well, such as gluten, a protein in wheat, and other grains. If you have an intolerance to gluten, this is different than Celiac disease, which impacts the way your immune system responds to gluten. An intolerance to any food involves how your digestive system responds to it. 

Food intolerance can also occur when you have an underlying medical condition, such as a stomach ulcer, that makes it difficult for your body to handle certain foods. Some people even suffer from reactions when they have experienced psychological events when eating particular foods.

Identifying Problem-Causing Foods

In order to determine what is causing your body to react to a certain food, you need to identify what food is causing that reaction. It can be a challenge to pinpoint exactly what you ate prior to having an episode. Some medical professionals recommend cutting out particular food groups, such as dairy or wheat, to figure out the cause through the process of elimination. You may also want to keep a food diary, which would include a record of the foods you eat and how you felt afterwards.

If you are experiencing common symptoms of food allergies, you can get tested to measure the response of your allergic reaction. Skin tests are the most common, as they are quick and relatively painless. During this type of test, you are exposed to a small amount of the food that you may be allergic to, and the person administering the test will watch for a reaction.

Blood testing is another way to determine whether you have a food allergy, and it's often used if the reaction could be more severe. Skin testing can be dangerous if your allergy is extremely severe, so blood testing will identify the levels of food-specific IgE in your blood. 

After determining what foods do cause reactions in your body, the final step is figuring out how to avoid them. It's important to review the ingredient lists to find out whether your allergens are included in any foods that you may eat. With a severe allergy, you may choose to wear a medical alert bracelet and/or carry a single-dose injection of epinephrine in case an urgent need arises.