Types of Food Allergies: An Overview

By Spader, Catherine, RN

Have you ever experienced unpleasant symptoms-upset stomach, rash, hives, runny nose, diarrhea-to something you have eaten? It could be a food allergy or food intolerance. Symptoms of both are similar and occur shortly after eating. But how do you know when it is serious and when you should see a doctor?

Is It a Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Food allergies are often confused with a far more common condition called food intolerance. Despite look-alike symptoms, food allergy and food intolerance affect your body differently. If you have a food intolerance, your digestive system cannot properly break down or digest a certain food. Food intolerances are generally not as serious as food allergies and only affect the digestive system.

Food intolerances include such symptoms as:

A food allergy is an overreaction of the immune system that occurs soon after eating allergy-causing foods. If you have a food allergy, your immune system mistakes an otherwise harmless food as potentially dangerous. As a response, your immune system produces IgE antibodies to protect your body. This leads to the release of histamine and other chemicals. These chemicals produce swelling and inflammation of your tissues and can cause a mild to life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.

Symptoms of a food allergy include digestive symptoms as well as:

  • Coughing

  • Hoarse voice

  • Itchy skin, rash, or hives

  • Runny nose

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness or swelling of the throat

  • Tingling in the tongue or lips

  • Wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound made as you breathe

Types of Food Allergies

If your doctor thinks that you may have a food allergy, he or she will work with you to identify the type of food allergy you have. Any type of food can cause a food allergy but the vast majority of food allergies are caused by:

  • Eggs, including eggs found in baked goods, omelets, pancakes, and french toast

  • Fish, including bass, cod, and flounder 

  • Milk and dairy foods, such as yogurt, ice cream and cheese, as well as dairy ingredients found in baked goods, cream soups and sauces

  • Peanuts

  • Shellfish, often shrimp, crab, and lobster, and other seafood including clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, and abalone

  • Soy, including soy milk, soy protein, hydrolyzed soy protein, soya, soy nuts, soy sauce, tofu, and textured vegetable protein

  • Tree nuts, such as walnuts, cashews and pecans

  • Wheat

Foods that rarely cause an allergic reaction include:

  • Fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables generally only cause allergic reactions when you eat them raw.

  • Food additives. These usually cause food intolerances, not allergic reactions. Food additives include dyes, thickeners, preservatives, MSG, and sulfites.

  • Chocolate

Why guess? You should see your doctor if you think you might have a type of food allergy or food intolerance. Only your doctor can diagnose the cause of your symptoms and initiate appropriate treatment for your symptoms.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Dec. 15, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2013 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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