Statistically, this is the single most common allergy in infants and young children. Recent studies estimate that as many as 3% of babies are allergic to cow’s milk at one year old. As many as 2 in every 100 children under the age of four are allergic to dairy.
While many people can naturally outgrow a milk allergy, this is not always the case. Properly treating a dairy allergy — and understanding how to avoid its many different forms — is crucial to avoid serious allergic and even life-threatening episodes.
This leaves parents and adults with many questions. What’s the difference between milk allergy and lactose intolerance? What are the symptoms and causes of milk allergy? What kinds of foods should you avoid? How is milk allergy diagnosed — and more importantly, how can it be treated? In the sections below, we’ll explore each of these questions, providing a comprehensive overview of everything you need to know about milk allergy diagnosis and treatment.
How is Milk Allergy Different from Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is characterized as a food intolerance, meaning it does not trigger an autoimmune response. Instead, lactose intolerance causes a gastrointestinal response, interfering with normal digestion when milk and dairy products are consumed.
Those who are lactose intolerant are unable to produce the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose (a sugar present in milk and diary). Without lactase, the digestive system is unable to break down lactose, causing symptoms such as nausea, cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and gas. While certainly uncomfortable, and can impact quality of life, lactose intolerance is not life-threatening.
Milk allergy may sound the same as lactose intolerance — but there are key differences between a milk allergy and an intolerance or sensitivity to milk. Milk allergy is an immune-mediated response. If you have a milk allergy, your body will automatically respond to milk proteins as though they are harmful, dangerous compounds. As milk proteins bind to IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies created by the immune system, this triggers a chain of allergic reactions that can range from mild to severe.
In some cases, allergic reactions can even be life-threatening. This is why it is so important to properly diagnose whether someone suffers from a true milk allergy or an intolerance.
Symptoms of a Milk Allergy Reaction
Symptoms can range from mild to severe. As with any significant food allergy, some reactions can even be life-threatening. Some of the most common symptoms of milk allergy reaction include:
- Shortness of breath
- Swelling in the lips, tongue, or throat
- Itching or tingling sensations in the mouth
- Abdominal cramps
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
Severe reactions can induce anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening. Anaphylaxis occurs when the immune system sends a rush of chemicals to fight off invading proteins, causing the body to go into shock. Signs of anaphylaxis can include:
- Pale or bluish tint on the skin
- Throat constriction
- Shortness of breath (and/or wheezing)
- Difficulty breathing
- Confusion and/or dizziness
- Weak, rapid pulse
Those with a diagnosed dairy allergy are advised to carry two epinephrine auto-injectors (such as an EpiPen®) at all times.
Milk Allergy Testing and Diagnosis
There are four ways to determine whether someone has a milk allergy. These include: