The difference between an allergic reaction and a foodborne illness

Across Washington State, there are people waiting for food to arrive, thinking about what they will have for dinner or having quick lunch in the office. Most of them are probably not thinking about foodborne illnesses or allergies, but some will get sick from the food they have eaten at home or away from home. Even if it’s not something you want to think about, it’s important to know the facts so that you can safeguard your health and avoid serious complications.

The side 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 disease and reactions. Secondly, the effects of allergic reactions and foodborne illnesses can be mild, severe or even lethal. Finally, with a little diligence and effort, allergic reactions and foodborne illnesses can usually be avoided. The two are also very different in many ways.

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

  1. bacteria
  2. The viruses
  3. parasites
  4. Toxins with bacteria

The symptoms of the above mentioned contaminants can include fever, cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fatigue. Kidney 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 for preventing food-borne diseases include:

  1. Cook animal products such as meat and eggs thoroughly
  2. Wash fruit and vegetables before consumption
  3. Keep hot food hot and cold cold
  4. Avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen by washing surfaces and utensils that have come into contact with hazardous food

Allergic reactions to food occur when a person consumes a food to which they are allergic. Unless the person is aware of their allergy, such consumption is usually involuntary. One of the key differences between foodborne illnesses and allergies is that not everyone is sensitive. As long as they are not contaminated, many people who do not have allergies can consume all the foods they prefer without suffering adverse reactions.

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

  1. Allergies to nuts and seeds
  2. Allergies to milk and eggs
  3. Wheat allergies
  4. Allergies to seafood

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 serious than foodborne illness. A person who has a severe food allergy can experience 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 problematic food. This means reading the labels carefully and always informing restaurant staff about food allergies.

Unless you have a severe allergy, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between allergic reactions and foodborne illnesses. If you suspect any of these, it is important to consult a doctor. He or she will be able to tell you how best to manage your symptoms and can be helpful in helping you locate the source.

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