Am I Allergic to Dairy? Lactose Intolerant?

Dairy Allergies

If you have a dairy allergy (sometimes called a milk allergy), your immune system has an abnormal reaction to the presence of substances in dairy products. Symptoms of a milk allergy range from mild to severe and can include life-threatening anaphylaxis. A milk allergy isn’t the same as lactose intolerance (also referred to as dairy intolerance).

Signs and Symptoms of a Dairy Allergy

Dairy allergy symptoms differ from person to person, and some occur immediately while others may be delayed. Signs that develop as soon as dairy is consumed include:

  • Wheezing, which is a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing
  • Hives, which are raised, itchy, pale red bumps or areas on the skin that appear suddenly
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath or coughing
  • Swelling of the throat, lips or tongue

Milk allergy symptoms that develop more slowly include

  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Loose stools or diarrhea, sometimes containing blood
  • Colic in babies, which is a condition that causes pain and discomfort

Lactose Intolerance vs. Dairy Allergy

Unlike a dairy allergy, which is a response of the immune system, lactose intolerance is caused by the lack of an enzyme (lactase) in the digestive system needed to digest a sugar called lactose. While some of the signs overlap, lactose intolerance symptoms are primarily experienced in the digestive tract. They include stomach pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. In some cases, other symptoms are reported, such as fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, joint and muscle pain, mouth ulcers, and eczema.

Dairy Allergy Quiz Time!

Sara doesn’t normally drink milk, but she has a glass along with some freshly baked cookies. Soon after, she starts having trouble breathing and then vomits. Someone tells her that her reaction means she’s lactose intolerant. Are they right?

No, they’re not. Sara’s reaction indicates she has a dairy allergy. And while both lactose intolerance and a milk allergy produce unpleasant symptoms, an allergy is a more serious condition that she should discuss with her doctor.

Dairy Allergy Treatment

Although there’s no milk allergy treatment that will resolve the issue permanently, you can prevent reactions by avoiding milk. This includes all types of milk (whole, low-fat, skim, buttermilk, etc.), yogurt, ice cream, cheese and butter, as well as anything that contains these foods. You should also be aware of milk components that can be found in processed foods, such as casein, whey and any ingredient that starts with “lact” (lactate, for example). And when eating out, it’s important to ask how your food was prepared. If it was prepped or finished using milk or butter, for instance, this can cause an allergic reaction.

If you think you have a dairy allergy, you should make an appointment to talk with a doctor at Baptist Health.

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