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What's the difference between food allergy and intolerance — and other health concepts?

Blog post | 06 May 2019

Ever wondered why psychiatrists and psychologists are different? Did you know that prebiotics and probiotics are not the same thing? Do you understand what your doctor is talking about when they refer to viral or bacterial infections?

The health space sometimes brims with confusing jargon and misinformation. It's easy to mix up concepts that are kind-of the same, but different. Here are 10 common ones, explained.

What's the difference between…

Food allergy and food intolerance?

Food allergy and intolerance are often confused because the symptoms can seem similar. An allergy is an immune response to a food. Food intolerance, on the other hand, does not involve the immune system and does not show up on allergy tests.

If a person is 'intolerant', they may be able to consume small amounts of the food, but a person with an allergy can experience an immediate or severe reaction after a small amount, including anaphylaxis.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen?

They're both painkillers, but ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), which means it can reduce pain and inflammation. While you can get low-dose ibuprofen over-the-counter, higher-dose ibuprofen requires a prescription.

Paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) is not as good at reducing inflammation as ibuprofen, but is usually a safe and effective pain medication.

Plastic surgeons and cosmetic surgeons?

To become a plastic surgeon, a doctor must first qualify as a doctor then undergo several more years of postgraduate training and study. They are specialists and can use 'FRACS' after their name (Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons).

By contrast, any registered doctor with a basic medical degree can call themselves a cosmetic surgeon — without any further specialist training.

Dietitians and nutritionists?

The dietetics industry isn't regulated by the government — and there are many different levels of training and qualifications — so legally anyone can call themselves a dietitian or nutritionist. It can be confusing.

When looking for any nutrition professional, check they have a university degree in either dietetics or nutrition. Check if they are an accredited practising dietitian (APD) through the Dietitians Association of Australia or in the case of nutritionists, if they are registered with the Nutrition Society of Australia.

APD is the only credential recognised by the Australian Government (for Medicare and the Department of Veterans' Affairs purposes) and many state governments and private health insurers. Dietitians can work in private practice and do one-on-one clinical consultations, while tertiary-educated nutritionists usually work in the community and public health space.

Prebiotics and probiotics?

Probiotics are the good live microorganisms that live in your gut — the nearly 1,000 different species of bacteria that help keep you healthy. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are 'food' for the probiotics. They are a type of fibre that acts like a fertiliser, nurturing the growth of the healthy bacteria in the gut.

Prebiotics include many fruits and vegetables — from artichokes to pasta to human breast milk.

That said, you can get live probiotics in food, too, which helps populate the bacteria in your gut. Yoghurt and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi are all rich in probiotics.

Psychologists and psychiatrists?

While both psychiatrists and psychologists help people understand how their brain works, and how they think and behave, there are some differences.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who undertake years of post-graduate specialist training, which allows them to diagnose, treat and prevent mental, emotional and behavioural disorders. They can prescribe medication, such as antidepressants, and can admit patients to hospital if needed.

Psychologists undertake a 4-year university degree then 2 years of education and training. They can't prescribe medication or admit people to hospital, but are very effective counsellors, researchers and consultants — and can employ treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy.

Haem and non-haem iron?

Iron is an essential mineral that helps make haemoglobin, the component of red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. Your body can store iron but can't make it, so you need to source iron from food. There are 2 types of iron: haem and non-haem iron.

Haem iron is more easily absorbed by the body than non-haem iron. Almost half the iron in meat, poultry and seafood is haem iron. Eggs and plant foods, however, contain only non-haem iron.

Plant foods can still provide an adequate amount of iron for your body. Good sources of iron include legumes such as lentils, beans and chick peas, firm tofu and wholegrain cereals. Check out this infographic for easy ways to boost your iron intake.

Viral and bacterial infections?

While bacteria and viruses can both cause mild to serious infections, they are different and must be treated differently. Bacteria and viruses are too tiny to be seen by the naked eye, can cause similar symptoms and are often spread in the same way, but that's where the similarities end.

A bacterium is a single — but complex — cell. It can survive on its own, inside or outside the body. Most bacteria aren't harmful.

Viruses are smaller and are not cells. Unlike bacteria, they need a host such as a human or animal to multiply. Viruses cause infections by entering and multiplying inside the host's healthy cells.

As the names suggest, bacteria can cause bacterial infections such as whooping cough, strep throat, and urinary tract infection (UTI). Viruses can cause viral infections including the common cold, flu, coughs, bronchitis, and chickenpox.

Doctors usually treat bacterial infections with antibiotics, which kill bacteria or stop them multiplying. You can't treat viral infections with antibiotics.

Elective and non-elective surgery?

Elective surgery is non-emergency surgery that is usually medically necessary but can be delayed for at least 24 hours. Despite how it sounds, elective surgery is not always optional. Examples of elective surgery, often called 'planned surgery', include hip replacement, cholecystectomy, hysterectomy and facelift.

You would typically be placed on a waiting list for an elective surgery; waiting times are usually shorter in a private, rather than public, hospital.

Non-elective surgery is performed because of an urgent, sometimes life-threatening, medical condition and is often referred to as, 'emergency surgery'.

'Signs' and 'symptoms'?

While these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. A symptom is something that only the patient can experience and report — such as anxiety, pain or fatigue. A sign is something that can be identified by someone else (a doctor, family member) or the patient — such as a skin rash, a fever, cough or bleeding.

If you have a symptom and you're not sure what to do next, you can use the healthdirect Symptom Checker for guidance.

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