Why It’s Important to Know The Difference Between an Allergy & Intolerance

One could assume that most people would know the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, but many do not.

Why It's Important to Know The Difference Between an Allergy & Intolerance

I hear this question most often when I talk about my milk allergy. I’ve had a lot of people tell me “An allergy? Don’t you mean an intolerance?” or “People can’t be allergic to milk, they are just lactose intolerance.” Nope, there is a difference. I am allergic to milk, I don’t have an intolerance even though the symptoms are very similar.


An allergy occurs when your immune system has an overreaction to a specific food protein. Allergies can be mild to life-threatening, which could be potentially fatal. When the body reacts to the food protein it could be within minutes to two hours before a reaction begins.

Mild reactions include:

  • Rashes
  • Hives
  • Swelling

Severe reactions include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Vomiting and/or stomach cramps
  • Tight, hoarse throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Dizziness
  • Weak pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Anaphylaxis

Sometimes delayed reactions can occur, which are usually mild such as developing eczema after eating a trigger food.

Many food allergies that appear in children are later outgrown. However, there are some foods like peanuts where the allergy stick around your entire life.

Sometimes an allergy to one thing could lead to the allergy of other things. For example, someone who may be allergic to almonds, a tree nut, may also be allergic to most tree nuts. This is not true for every food group but can occur.


Also known as Anaphylactic Shock‎, is the severe stage of an allergic reaction which requires medical assistance.

The most common food that can cause someone to go into anaphylaxis are peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Nonfood reactions that may also cause anaphylaxis includes bee stings and medications.

Symptoms include:

  • Rashes
  • Hives
  • Swollen lips
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Vomiting

When someone goes into anaphylaxis it can be very scary. It can cause panic attacks and have a lasting effect on them. When someone goes into anaphylaxis you should keep calm. Freaking out is not going to make them feel any better. It could make things worse.

When an allergic reaction occurs epinephrine needs to be administered. This is done with an epinephrine auto-injector. These are commonly known by the name of EpiPen but EpiPen® is also a name brand epinephrine auto-injector.

How to use an epinephrine auto-injector:

There are different epinephrine auto-injector out there but they are generally used the same. Some even have an automated voice that walks you through it.

Simple step by step tutorial


It’s important for those with allergies to know how to use an epinephrine auto-injector as well as those with friends or relatives with allergies. It’s actually better if everyone knew.

Epinephrine is adrenaline which can help treat the symptoms of anaphylaxis. It has to be administered as soon as possible and that individual should then be transported to an emergency room.


An Allergist will do one of two test to see if you have allergies. A skin-prick test and a blood test. They will work with you and your history of eating certain food to find the problem and treat it.


A food intolerance can have some of the same symptoms as an allergy and can be hard to tell which is which without the help of a trained medical professional. When it come to an intolerance, your body is unable to break down the enzymes in the food or you body is unable to handle certain chemicals (like caffeine). A food intolerance is not life-threatening, though it can be unbearable.

Some people can tolerate a certain amount of a trigger food before seeing symptoms. It is more common to see symptoms after consuming large amounts rather than small amounts. Symptoms do not appear immediately. The food first has to start the digestion process and how often you eat the trigger food can affect how soon symptoms appear.

Common symptoms include:

  •  Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritable bowel
  • See more

Some less common symptoms:

  • Skin rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pains
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Night sweats

Multiple symptoms are common and not very predictable.

A food intolerance is not easily diagnosed. There are not many tests to identify food intolerance so an exclusion diet is usually used.

Lactose intolerance is one of the few that can be diagnosed by test, though the symptoms are similar to a milk allergy.

In lactose intolerance, for example, the body lacks the enzyme (lactase) that breaks down lactose (milk sugar) into smaller sugars ready for absorption from the gut. Lactose is too large to be absorbed across the gut wall undigested, and its presence in the gut causes gut spasm, pain, bloating, diarrhoea and ‘failure to thrive’. Incidentally, these same symptoms can occur in milk allergy, when the body has made antibodies to milk protein, which causes an immune reaction when you drink milk. Hence, you cannot always distinguish allergy from intolerance by symptoms alone without expert help.1

Allergy vs Intolerance

Allergy                                                                             Intolerance

-Life threatening                                                         -Not life threatening

-Causes immune system to react to specific      -Body’s inability to digest certain foods
food proteins

-Requires immediate medical attention              -Doesn’t usually require medical attention

-Diagnosed through skin-prick test and             -Very hard to diagnosed, only test available
a blood test                                                                        is for lactose intolerance

-Reactions occur almost instantly                         -Reactions are delayed

-Predictable symptoms                                             -Multiple, unpredictable symptoms

-Symptoms can affect skin, breathing,                -Symptoms usually occur in the
stomach, digestion tract and                                     stomach and digestion tract
circulation system



-Both can have similar symptoms which can make diagnosis difficult

-Both suck


So there are both similarities and differences to allergies and intolerance and it’s important to know the difference. It can be dangerous to treat an allergy like an intolerance!


Do you or anyone you know have an allergy or intolerance?

1Allergy or Intolerance?

What is Food Intolerance
About Anaphylaxis
Types of Food Allergies

Disclaimer: All information on Not Your Typical Hippie is for educational purposes only. I am not a doctor, veterinarian, dietician, or health expert. If you wish to have advice on a medical problem, please consult a doctor. I cannot guarantee that any information provided will work for every person. Please consult a doctor before making any health changes. I am not liable for any choices you make based on the information provided on this website. (Learn more here)