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You might not have a food allergy after all

Four illustrations of wheat, milk, nuts and fish/shellfish within "no" symbols.

Feb. 1, 2019—It's a common story: Human meets cheese. Tummy dislikes cheese. Human avoids cheese for the rest of their life. But this tale has a plot twist: A lot of people who think they have a food allergy don't have one.

About 1 out of every 5 American adults thinks they're allergic to some type of food, according to new research published in JAMA Network Open. But in reality, only 1 out of every 10 adults has a true food allergy.

Many of those who think they have a food allergy might actually have a food intolerance instead. Some of the symptoms may seem similar, but the process at work—and what you need to do about it—is different, notes the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Food intolerance is a problem with digestion. It happens when your digestive system isn't able to break down a particular food the way it should. For that reason, your digestive system is where you're most likely to feel the symptoms—such as diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps or gas.

It's uncomfortable. And that can lead some people to eliminate foods completely from their diet. But it may not be necessary to go to those extremes. In many cases, people with a food intolerance will find they can eat small amounts of the offending food without difficulty.

An allergic reaction, on the other hand, involves your immune system. When you have an allergy to a food, your body views it as a foreign invader. And it launches an immune response that can affect your whole body.

Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include:

  • Hives, itchiness or swelling of skin.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.

And in severe cases, a food allergy can be deadly. Just inhaling or touching a food can cause dizziness, fainting and trouble breathing.

That's why it's important to know whether you have an allergy or an intolerance. People who have an allergy should carry epinephrine with them in case they accidentally come in contact with the offending food. Taking epinephrine can stop an allergic reaction.

According to the study, the most common foods people are allergic to are:

  • Shellfish.
  • Milk.
  • Peanuts.
  • Tree nuts.
  • Fish with fins.
  • Eggs.
  • Wheat.
  • Soy.
  • Sesame.

One other common misconception? Not all food allergies start in childhood. You can develop them as an adult. So if you think you have a problem with a type of food, talk to your doctor. You can have tests to find out if you have a food allergy or an intolerance—and learn what you should do about it.

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