The Difference Between an Allergic Reaction and Foodborne Illness

All across Washington State, there are people waiting for food to arrive in restaurants, thinking about what they’ll have for dinner, or eating a quick lunch at the office. Most of them probably aren’t thinking about foodborne illnesses or allergies, but some of them will get sick from the food they ate while at home or out and about. While it’s not something you want to think about, it’s important to know the facts so you can safeguard your health and avoid serious complications.

Adverse effects that occur after eating certain foods are typically the result of foodborne illnesses or allergic reactions. These are similar in several key respects. First, many substances can cause both illnesses and reactions. Second, effects of allergic reactions and foodborne illnesses can be mild, serious or even lethal. Last, with some diligence and effort, allergic reactions and foodborne illnesses can usually be avoided. The two are also very different in many ways.

Foodborne illnesses-often simply referred to as food poisoning-are the result of consuming contaminated foods. Everyone is susceptible to them to some degree. There are four main classes of contaminants that can cause foodborne illnesses and they are:

  1. Bacteria
  2. Viruses
  3. Parasites
  4. Toxins with bacteria

Symptoms of the above mentioned contaminants can include fever, cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fatigue. Renal failure and paralysis are a couple of the more serious effects associated with certain types of bacteria, including E. coli and Clostridium Botulinum. Four main strategies to prevent foodborne illness include:

  1. Cooking animal products such as meat and eggs thoroughly
  2. Washing fruits and vegetables before consumption
  3. Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold
  4. Avoiding cross contamination in the kitchen by washing surfaces and utensils that have come into contact with risky foods

Allergic reactions to food occur when a person consumes a food to which he or she is allergic. Unless the person is unaware of their allergy, such consumption is usually unintentional. One of the key differences between foodborne illnesses and allergies is that not everyone is susceptible. As long as they are not contaminated, many people who have no allergies can consume any foods they like without suffering adverse reactions.

A person can potentially have a reaction to virtually any type of food, although some allergies are more common than others are. Some of the most prevalent allergies include:

  1. Nut and seed allergies
  2. Milk and egg allergies
  3. Wheat allergies
  4. Seafood allergies

Allergic reactions produce many of the same symptoms as foodborne illnesses including stomach pain, abdominal cramps, fatigue, and vomiting. Allergic reactions, however, have the potential to be much more severe than foodborne illnesses. A person who has a severe allergy to a food can go into anaphylactic shock if it is consumed, which can lead to respiratory failure and death within minutes. The only way to prevent allergic reactions is to avoid contact with the problematic food. That means reading labels carefully and always informing restaurant staff about food allergies.

Unless you have a severe allergy, it can be difficult sometimes to distinguish between allergic reactions and foodborne illnesses. If you suspect either, it’s important to see a doctor. He or she will be able to tell you how to best deal with your symptoms, and may be useful in helping you pinpoint the source.

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