When your digestion goes on strike
Food: allergy versus intolerance

Stomach aches after having a glass of milk, or itchy spots on your skin after sampling a fruit platter: there are foods that have unpleasant side effects for certain people. When can this be described as an allergy, and what's the difference between an allergy and an intolerance?

A varied diet provides the body with the nutrients it needs to get through the day. It sounds simple. But it's not that easy for everyone. According to the aha! Swiss Allergy Centre, around 20% of the Swiss population are affected by some type of food restriction, with reactions that include digestive problems, skin rashes or even breathing difficulties. These are often symptoms of a food allergy. However, food intolerances can also be at the root of these complaints.

Food allergies: a misguided immune system

With a food allergy, while eating or directly after eating, a person experiences symptoms such as tingling or swelling in the mouth, red, itchy spots on the skin, or nausea. Contrary to popular belief, it's not the food itself that's at fault but your body's own immune system. The undesirable side effects are triggered by the body's overreaction to certain proteins. The immune system classifies the protein, which is known as the allergen, as a foreign body, and combats it with antibodies. This is what causes the allergy symptoms.

Food intolerance: an uncooperative digestive system

Unlike a food allergy, the symptoms of an intolerance don't appear immediately, but instead only after digestion is already at an advanced stage. With an intolerance, certain enzymes are missing in the gut, and as a result the components of nutrients cannot be adequately split up. The body cannot break down these substances quickly enough. This can lead to stomach ache, diarrhoea and nausea. The most well known and common intolerance according to the Swiss Allergy Centre is lactose intolerance. Around 15% to 20% of the population in Switzerland cannot tolerate dairy products.

Identifying foods you can't tolerate

In order to live as carefree as possible with a food allergy or intolerance, try to avoid the problematic food as much as possible. You may have heard about eliminating foods from your diet. But that's often not so simple because the exact allergens need to be identified first. There are various skin and blood tests that can help. There are also breath tests, for example for detecting lactose or fructose intolerance, or antibody tests for gluten intolerance (coeliac disease). More information on this is available from the
Swiss Allergy Centre. Before you eliminate any offending foods, it's worth getting expert advice in order to avoid the risk of malnutrition.

Allergies and intolerances in children

A child's immune system is not fully developed, and their gut doesn't work as efficiently as an adult's. This makes them more susceptible to food allergies and intolerances. The good news is that in many cases, allergies and intolerances in children disappear by the time they reach school age. Children most often have allergic reactions to eggs, cow's milk, peanuts, wheat and fish.

Children who suffer from atopic eczema are at much greater risk of developing a food allergy. This is because the skin's protective barrier has been compromised, and allergens can more easily enter the body through the skin. A food allergy can also be a precursor to another allergy, for example hay fever. This is due to the fact that certain proteins are similar in their structure, which means that cross-reactions can occur.

Can you prevent food allergies and intolerances?

Allergies and intolerances are often genetic, which means that they cannot be completely prevented. But there are a few tricks you can use to reduce the risk of children developing issues.

  • Eating a healthy, varied diet and strictly avoiding alcohol and cigarettes during pregnancy.
  • Breastmilk provides your child with valuable antibodies. That's why the advice is to breastfeed babies until they are six months of age, and then gradually wean them onto solids. This way, the gut can become accustomed to various foods and you can easily recognise if a particular food is causing problems.
  • It's also beneficial to feed babies a varied diet of solid food from the age of four months.
  • Making sure your child gets plenty of fresh air, and letting them come in contact with environmental elements such as pollen and pet hair, are additional ways to strengthen the immune system.

Whether the issue is a food allergy or food intolerance, a detailed consultation with a medical expert is always recommended. This involves talking about whether you have known allergies, whether anybody in your family suffers from them, whether those affected suffer from other illnesses, and the next steps you can take.

With a food allergy or intolerance it often helps to get support with switching your diet. Certified nutritionists (FH) at santé24 provide support to SWICA customers by appointment, free of charge. Customers also benefit from generous contributions to nutritional analysis and advice from third-party providers. You can find out more here.

For further questions relating to health, SWICA customers can contact the santé24 telemedicine service free of charge on +41 44 404 86 86. The doctors at santé24 also have a telemedicine practice licence that allows them to provide additional services in cases that lend themselves to such an approach. SWICA customers can also use the BENECURA medical app to carry out a digital SymptomCheck and get recommendations about what to do next. During a subsequent phone call with santé24, customers can decide for themselves whether to release their information from SymptomCheck to santé24.

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