Food Allergy, Intolerance, or Sensitivity?

Karen Patten

I saw the fear engulf my six year old son’s tiny face as we frantically swarmed around him. “What happened?” “Did you eat something?” “Why are your eyes swollen?” His eyes looked more like golfballs glued to either side of his nose than actual eyes.

He accidentally put a walnut in his mouth and spit it right out, but then his tongue started itching and swelling. His face and eyes followed.

And before you pummel me with comments and emails asking what kind of irresponsible mother has walnuts in the house when her son is allergic to nuts, his allergy tests revealed that he was not allergic to walnuts.

Yet here we were one morning administering an epinephrine injection, calling “911,” and praying that my son would be ok because he touched a piece of a walnut to his tongue.

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Every parent must know signs of food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities. Here's a quick read with printable lists of food allergy symptoms and food sensitivity symptoms!

This post may contain distributor and affiliate links.

To find out more about my distributor and affiliate links, read here.

The CDC says that from 1997 to 2007, among children under 18, the prevalence of food allergies increased 18%. About eight percent of children under the age of 18 have one or more food allergies. Researchers also concluded that nearly 40 percent of the allergic reactions are severe [meaning trouble breathing, the tongue swelling, the throat closing, a drop in blood pressure, any reaction that is life threatening and that could lead to death], and nearly one-third have sensitivities to more than one food.” All this boils down to 1 in 13 children having one or more food allergies. And almost half of them are severe.

Is There A Difference Between Food Allergies, Intolerances & Sensitivities?

The terms food intolerance and food sensitivity are used interchangeably, which is not correct. And food allergies differ from sensitivities or intolerances because of the body’s response to the food. Both food allergies and food sensitivities are the body’s over reactive immune system responding to foods that the system perceives as “invaders.” An intolerance is a digestive system response.

Food Allergies

True food allergies cause “an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, an allergic reaction to a food can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance or sensitivity symptoms are generally less serious…” (cite)

Allergies are an overreaction of our immune system, a kind of exaggerated response to a perceived danger.

When an allergy exists, the child’s “immune system “recognizes” the protein as dangerous, just as it would have seen the danger in the bacterium that causes pneumonia or the virus that causes mumps. In response, her immune system creates special “fighter” proteins called antibodies designed to identify and neutralize the “invader.”

These fighter proteins are known as immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short. When they’re released into the bloodstream, their purpose is to “seek and destroy” the invader, which they do by creating one or more of the classic food allergy symptoms, such as the hives, or the diarrhea with which other children respond, or, in more extreme cases, the anaphylactic shock that can kill a child within minutes.

The classic IgE response occurs within minutes or even seconds, because IgE proteins are some of the most aggressive antibodies we know. That immediate IgE response is the defining characteristic of an allergic reaction. (cite)

Food sensitivities also cause an immune reaction, but it’s not as immediate.

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Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities start out in a similar way. If a “sensitive” child is exposed to a protein that his system perceives as a threat, he’ll manufacture another type of fighter protein, known as Immunglobulin G, or IgG. Although IgE and IgG antibodies play similar roles, they produce somewhat different—though often overlapping—symptoms.

A crucial difference between the two, though, is their reaction time. The less aggressive IgG antibodies typically produce a delayed response that might not appear for hours or even days after the child has consumed the offending food. (cite)

Food sensitivities are frequently minimized or ignored all together by medical doctors. Part of the reason for this may be the more delayed reaction time of IgG, so that it doesn’t provide an immediate threat to a child’s life.

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Food Intolerances

“A food intolerance is a digestive system response rather than an immune system response. It occurs when something in food irritates a person’s digestive system or when a person is unable to properly digest, or break down, the food.” (cite)

How Are Food Allergies, Intolerances, and Sensitivities Diagnosed?

Traditional western medicine diagnoses food allergies by starting with a detailed history and then performing testing. Various tests are used such as a skin prick test, a blood test, oral food challenges, or a trial elimination diet.

Food intolerances are typically found through dietary elimination trials. Once a suspected food is eliminated from the diet for a period of time, typically 30 days, it is reintroduced to determine if there is a reaction. Keeping a food and symptom diary to look for common factors can be helpful in finding patterns in diet and symptoms.

We Made It Through

We were lucky that day. I gave my son his epinephrine injection. He squealed and said “HEY! That hurt more than when we practiced!” But the shot started to reduce his swelling almost immediately and within five minutes, by the time two firetrucks and an ambulance arrived, he was almost back to normal. We were so lucky. So very, very lucky.

But we were also prepared. We knew the signs of an allergic reaction and we were prepared to respond in the case of an accidental contact with an allergen. That is why I’m writing this series so that anyone who has children, cares for children, or even has children over to visit will know the common signs of an allergic reaction to food as well as the common signs of sensitivity to food. I want everyone to have the knowledge so that they can be prepared.

Resources About Food Allergies, Intolerances and Sensitivities

Here are some of my favorite resources for parents, teachers, and any other caregivers learning about food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances and the effects that they can have on a child’s health and behavior. I expect you can find most or all of these books at  your local library, or for your convenience, you may purchase them through the links below.

Here are some really fun books to help children with food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities and their friends understand them better. Again, I expect you can find most or all of these books at  your local library, or for your convenience, you may purchase them through the links below.


Every parent must know signs of food allergies and the signs of food sensitivities. Here's a quick read with printable lists of food allergy symptoms and food sensitivity symptoms!


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  2. Brittany W on May 28, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    I have celiac disease, which isn’t an allergy OR an intolerance, so it’s hard to explain. I constantly feel lucky that it isn’t an actual allergy, but it’s so frustrating to have to watch what you eat at all times! I’m glad your son was okay.

    • Karen Patten on May 28, 2015 at 7:17 pm

      Celiac’s is an auto immune disease, yes? Celiac’s must be so hard! I recently learned from a friend who was diagnosed that you have to be careful about gluten, even in beauty products – not just in foods! I’m looking forward to seeing your recipes! My son tested negative for Celiac’s but positive for a wheat sensitivity. So, to make things simple, I look for gluten free with him.

  3. Elaine Hodges on June 8, 2015 at 8:57 am

    Glad your son was OK. This is a great explanation of food allergies. Thanks for adding it to the Healthy Living Link Party and for co-hosting.

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Hi, I’m Karen, the Atlanta mama, writer, and creator at Intentional Family Life. I’m a passionate advocate for intentional living so that you can experience all that you deserve for yourself and your family. Here, I inspire moms to chose what matters most and then to only do the things that move them closer to what matters most. Read More About Karen…

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