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Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities: What's the Difference?

If it seems like more children than ever are being diagnosed with food allergies or sensitivities, it’s not just your imagination.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in both food allergies and food sensitivities over the last decade, especially in children, but there is no singular reason,” said Steven A. Shapiro DO, chair of Pediatrics at Abington - Jefferson Health.

However before you can start managing your child’s diet and monitoring for reactions to food, it’s important to understand the different types of reactions that can occur.

“That’s the key element,” said Dr. Shapiro. “There is food allergy, and then there is food sensitivity. The immune response makes a difference.”

Food Allergies

Food allergies are triggered when there is an immune response to the proteins found in a specific food. The most common allergies are to various types of nuts including peanuts, pine nuts and tree nuts.

“With an allergy, your body is saying ‘I don’t need this,’” said Dr. Shapiro. “Then the cells in your gut become aggravated as they try to destroy the threat, activating the cells in your entire body.”

The body also begins producing antibodies, similar to when you have a cold. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include rash, hives, inflammation, itching, swelling, trouble breathing, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea.

“Reactions from food allergies can be life-threatening and should not be taken lightly,” added Dr. Shapiro.

Food allergies can gradually change, with some patients outgrowing their symptoms altogether. However, most patients will experience reactions to their dietary triggers throughout their life, making diligence in food choices important.

Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities are uncomfortable but not life threatening. While allergies affect the entire body, reactions from food sensitivities are localized in the gut. Milk is a good example of this type of irritant.

“The small bowel in your belly is overwhelmed by the irritant and can’t create enough enzyme activity to digest that particular food, leaving you with an upset stomach,” said Dr. Shapiro. “For this type of reaction, over-the-counter medications are extremely effective.”

Food sensitivities can come and go and patients may notice different reactions to their triggers. For example, you may be able to tolerate milk in one instance, but deal with sharp pains from a lactose intolerance just a few weeks later.

Is Prevention Possible?

Though allergies and sensitivities are most commonly diagnosed in children and young adults, symptoms can present at any age.

New research on food allergies suggests some patients may be able to prevent the onset of dangerous food allergies with carefully monitored therapies. In fact, if the digestive system is primed with a small amount of a common irritant before your child’s first birthday, the risk of allergy is reduced by a third.

Parents may consider adding a small amount of peanut butter to breast milk or formula, choosing peanut-based snacks or adding peanut butter to baby food. Just two teaspoons is all it takes.

“It’s amazing how well these little babies do with it,” said Dr. Shapiro. “It has obviously decreased the incidence of allergic reactions.”

It’s important to talk to a physician if you or a loved one is experiencing reactions to certain foods. To find an Abington - Jefferson Health physician, please call 215-481-MEDI (6334).

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