Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance: How to know what’s what

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Food allergies and food intolerances are a couple of those things that no mom really wants to know about first hand. However, knowing about food allergies and intolerances can help you avoid a great deal of headache should someone in your family have to deal with food allergy or intolerance.

When someone says the words “food allergy”, what comes to mind?

Hives, swelling, epi pens, asthma…  

Did any of those pop into your mind?

How about bloating, gas, diarrhea, etc.

Understanding when a reaction is a food allergy and when it is a food intolerance can often be confusing because intolerances and allergic reactions share many similar symptoms.

I’ve, unfortunately, had a great deal of first-hand experience with food allergies and intolerances.  I, myself, am intolerant to a dye commonly used in food and candy.  The Husband has a variety of food intolerances.  Big Brother has a full blown food allergy, and has to have an epi-pen.  Little Brother has had many food intolerances since birth.

Managing and discovering food allergies and intolerances have been a major source motherly frustration for me.

So what are the symptoms?

Food Allergies:

  • Rash or hives
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Itchy skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Congestion
  • Chest pain
  • Swelling of the airways to the lungs
  • Anaphylaxis
Food Intolerance:
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Gas, cramps, or bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Irritability or nervousness
  • Eczema
  • Fatigue
  • Occasional constipation

You can see where there is a lot of overlapping in the symptoms. The main thing to remember when trying to distinguish an allergic reaction from an intolerant reaction is the origin of the symptoms.  An allergic reaction is an immune system response and can affect numerous organs.  People with food allergies must completely avoid the foods they are allergic to.  In some cases food allergies can be life threatening.

A food intolerance is a result of the digestive system not being able to process certain enzymes or proteins.  Food intolerance can develop gradually.  People with food intolerances can often eat a small amount of the offending food without a reaction.  Babies are very prone to food intolerances.  Thankfully, many babies outgrow their food intolerance as their digestive systems mature.

When my boys were babies I’d often talk with other mothers about my frustrations with how the babies we eating, or not eating, were always fussy, always had diarrhea, had eczema, etc.  In my conversations I realized that many people don’t realize what a food intolerance is or what the symptoms are.  Many people are unfamiliar with some of the tell tale signs of a food allergy.  I have seen many a struggling mother who would find relief if she only knew her baby’s fussiness was a result of a food intolerance.  I have also seen a few perpetually runny-nosed child who might breathe more clearly if only they were not eating a certain food.

If you suspect you or your child has a food allergy it is important to see an allergist to confirm presence of an allergy and its severity.

If you suspect you or your child has a food intolerance your doctor may be able to help you identify the offending food(s), and help you come up with a plan to get the symptoms under control.

Do you have food allergies or intolerances in your family?  What have you done to avoid them or keep them under control?


About Amy @ Oh So Savvy Mom

Amy is mom to three, wife to one, and a sister and aunt to many. Her family is a former military family now settled in Lehi, Utah. Oh So Savvy Mom began as a way for Amy to share parenting and product advice with others. Just as she has evolved, Oh So Savvy Mom has evolved into a resource for Healthy Living for Families, Food, Parenting, and Family Travel.


  1. Fortunately my children have only had infant food intolerances and those were few and far between. Dairy was the most common and was solved when I switched to fresh (raw) milk. The other was wheat and that was much harder for me to deal with, but trying to eat only grains that had been soaked overnight or sprouted helped ease the symptoms (eczema).
  2. No allergies or food intolerance to report so far. But, this is a very helpful and informative post. I never ever realized there was a difference! Thanks, Amy!
  3. I am so glad you did this post - I should do one similar - I have crazy food allergies. And unlike most people that I know, my allergies get WORSE with age! I remember before having any food allergies I thanked God that I was able to go out to any restaurant I wanted and was able to eat anything. I really love food and classify myself as a foodie. Foodie no more though. I am now gluten INTOLERANT and have a casein ALLERGY as well as berry, ginseng and echinacea allergies. I have to tell you I hate when people go "oh you're lactose intolerant?". No. I am not. "Oh, you're celiac?" No, I have not gotten a positive test for this. "Oh you're allergic to wheat?"...NO!! So frustrating at times. I'm sure you can relate a bit. I wish there were more information & available knowledge about this sort of thing in the real world - it would certainly save me a lot of frustration. Good luck with the food allergies! I'm rooting for ya!