Often when I tell people that I have food allergies, they immediately nod and say something like, “My sister is lactose intolerant.” The line feels blurry between food allergy and food intolerance, and the two may look or feel similar to each other.
A food intolerance is a complication in the digestive system, such as the lack of a specific enzyme to process something. For example, lactose intolerance results from the body not producing enough lactase to process lactose. A food allergy corresponds to hypersensitivity in the immune system, when the immune system overreacts and attacks molecules that are actually non-threatening.
Food intolerances generally provide a fair amount of discomfort and pain, due to indigestion. Food allergies present themselves as hives, watery eyes, and itching, if they are mild, and anaphylaxis if they are severe.
Anaphylaxis is a dangerous—as in, potentially fatal—allergic response in which histamines are released at a rapid pace, causing tissues to swell and blood vessels to dilate. As a result, airways constrict, resulting in a spinning, suffocating response.
Necessary treatments for anaphylaxis are similar to other emergency situations. As the victim often lacks physical control, it is important that others stay calm and take immediate action to call 911, and administer any emergency medication. The most common emergency medicine is an auto-injection of epinephrine. Epinephrine is the fancy name for adrenaline, and initiates the “fight-or-flight” response in humans. Injecting epinephrine gives the victim a greater chance of surviving.
Food allergies are not always this severe; however, in my case, they most definitely are. Food allergies should always be taken seriously, whether or not they produce hives or anaphylaxis, as mild responses can build up or lead to more severe ones.
NOTE: Anaphylaxis is not just associated with food allergies; it can happen with bee stings, drug allergies, and other more obscure situations. A case of anaphylaxis is an emergency. Anyone experiencing or noticing an anaphylactic reaction should take action immediately and call 911.