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Food intolerance

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Food intolerance is when your body struggles to digest food or a component of food, and this causes uncomfortable or unpleasant physical symptoms. It is different from an allergy and is not life-threatening like an allergy can be. The most common culprits are dairy (lactose), wheat or gluten, and caffeine.

The most common symptoms of food intolerance are stomach pain, bloating, excessive gas, and diarrhea. In some instances, food intolerances can lead to mild skin symptoms such as rashes or itching but these differ in severity from allergic reactions. Suppose you were to suffer symptoms of an allergic reaction, not an intolerance. In that case, there is the potential for something called anaphylaxis to develop, which is life-threatening and can develop quickly. The symptoms may include coughing, wheezing, or having noisy or fast breathing. You may see the face, lips, and tongue swelling, but the risk is if the throat swells, blocking the airways.

Food intolerance symptoms are not very specific and commonly can be caused by other conditions such as stress, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and food allergies.

Doctor’s advice

When should I see my doctor?

Suppose you think you have a food intolerance. In that case, you should book a routine doctor's appointment, and in the meantime, keep a food and symptom diary, as this can help your doctor understand the symptoms and identify possible causes. You can also try cutting out what you think is causing the intolerance to see if your symptoms improve.

Any signs of anaphylaxis or severe allergic reaction, with sudden onset swelling of the tongue or lips leading to breathing difficulties, should be treated as an emergency, and you should call 911 for an ambulance.

What will my doctor do?

The doctor will ask you about your current symptoms, past medical history, and relevant family medical history. Depending on your symptoms, they may examine your skin or feel your abdomen. Sometimes, the doctor may do some tests, such as a breath test (used to diagnose lactose intolerance) or blood tests.

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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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