Chances are, you’ve heard of lactose intolerance before. An estimated 30 million American adults exhibit symptoms of lactose intolerance by age 20, making it a fairly common issue.
Many people hear the term “milk allergy” and assume that it’s the same thing as lactose intolerance. The truth is that these are two very different reactions and one is far more dangerous than the other.
How can you tell the difference between a milk allergy and lactose intolerance? What are the symptoms of both in babies and adults? Is avoiding milk the only possible solution?
Read on as we explain these two conditions, how to spot them, and what your options are if you have one or both.
Lactose Intolerance vs. Milk Allergy
First, let’s talk about the important differences between lactose intolerance and milk allergies. While lactose intolerance can create a great deal of discomfort, it isn’t life-threatening. Milk allergies (aka dairy allergies), on the other hand, can become life-threatening.
Lactose intolerance is an issue that takes place entirely in the digestive system. Lactose intolerant people do not make lactate naturally in the body, which is the enzyme responsible for making lactose digestible. As a result, lactose moves into the colon undigested, which causes a range of unpleasant symptoms.
Milk allergies involve the immune system, which reacts to one or both proteins in milk as though they were posing a threat. This causes the immune system to release substances that cause mild to severe symptoms, as it would in response to other food allergens .
As we’ve already mentioned, lactose intolerance symptoms aren’t life-threatening. They are, however, uncomfortable and may be disruptive to your day. The good news is that if you do find that you’re experiencing these symptoms, you can try taking over-the-counter medication that provides your body with the enzymes to process lactose.
The symptoms of lactose intolerance in babies include:
- swelling and pain in the stomach
- watery or bubbly stools
- excessive gas
- crying when passing stools
- discomfort or failure to settle down while feeding
Keep in mind that the milk from any mammal contains lactose, including breastmilk. Even if your baby is currently only consuming breast milk, they still may show signs of lactose intolerance. Lactose-free formula does exist but you will want to read all labels carefully.
The symptoms of lactose intolerance in adults include:
- bloating and/or excessive gas
As we mentioned earlier, you can often curb these symptoms and continue to consume dairy by taking proper medications. Make sure to follow the instructions so that the medication is already in effect before consuming dairy.
Some milk allergy symptoms look similar to the symptoms of lactose intolerance. For example, you may experience bloating or diarrhea if you have a milk allergy. Because other potential milk allergy symptoms are much more serious, it’s important to avoid dairy products until you can receive proper treatment.
Milk allergies are most common in babies under the age of three. In fact, an estimated 2-3% of babies in this age group have milk allergies, making milk one of the most common allergens. Symptoms can be immediate, occurring within a few minutes of consuming dairy, or delayed, occurring within a few hours of consuming dairy.
Symptoms of milk allergies in babies include:
- skin reactions such as itchy or red rashes and swelling around the mouth or eyes
- digestive reactions that are similar to lactose intolerance symptoms but can also include bloody stool
- respiratory reactions such as a runny or stuffed up nose and trouble breathing
- eczema that does not respond to typical eczema treatments
The good news is that these reactions occur in response to cow’s milk, in particular. This means that babies with milk allergies can typically still breastfeed or consume formula that does not contain any dairy.
Most children who have a milk allergy seem to “outgrow” the allergy between 4 and 16 years of age. However, there are some adults who continue to experience an allergic reaction to cow’s milk. Symptoms are similar to those you’ll see in a baby with a milk allergy as well as:
- nausea and vomiting
- dizziness and fainting
- low blood pressure
- loss of consciousness
- chest tightness or difficulty breathing
If you believe that you may have a milk allergy, get into the habit of reading food labels and avoiding dairy until you have spoken with an allergy specialist.
It’s not always easy to determine what, specifically, you’re allergic to. This can be a difficult and concerning position to be in as you try to navigate what foods to consume and what foods to avoid.
Visiting an allergist is the best way to move forward. One of the first steps in the food allergy treatment process is to get a blood test and other diagnostics done to pinpoint what you or your child is allergic to.
You may be surprised to learn that having a milk allergy doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have to avoid milk for the rest of your life. Treatment is available to train your body to develop a tolerance to the foods that trigger allergy symptoms.
If you believe that your child has a milk allergy, consider working with the Southern California Food Allergy Institute. We provide cutting-edge clinical care and are considered one of the top allergy facilities in the nation. It is possible that we can help you to overcome your allergy to dairy.
Want to find out more or book your first consultation? Contact us today so that we can begin to provide safe and comprehensive care for your child.