Is There Such a Thing as Milk Allergy? Isn’t it Called Lactose Intolerance?


Milk allergy and lactose intolerance are the two health issues that continue to confuse most people. The fact is, milk allergy is very common amongst infants who live to outgrow the problem by the age of three years. A very small number of children grow to become adults while still with the problem. There is however a trend where more adults are developing allergy to milk and milk products. This is what confuses most people. What many adults experience is not milk allergy but rather lactose intolerance.

milk allergy

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From the above explanation, it is apparent that indeed both milk allergy and lactose intolerance are not only real but also very distinct from each other. To better understand the two, it is only appropriate that we look at each in details.

Milk allergy

Milk allergy is a disorder where one’s immune system reacts to milk proteins (cow’s milk). Although milk proteins in this case are not harmful, the immune system mistakes the same to be invading germs and therefore sets in motion various processes aimed at destroying the proteins. The resultant reaction causes varied symptoms some of which can be life threatening.

Milk allergy symptoms can be grouped into three main categories; dermatological, respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms. Dermatological symptoms include skin rashes, swelling on lips/mouth/tongue/face and at time the throat. Parts of the skin can also turn reddish and become itchy. Respiratory symptoms include nasal congestion, blocked/runny nose and in extreme cases asthma. Gastrointestinal symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting amongst other symptoms. Although milk allergy is taken casually by most people, it can be life-threatening especially with onset of anaphylaxis, the sudden allergic reaction that can easily lead to death.

Although studies to find milk allergy cures are still on, treatments are readily available. Treatment methods however aim at addressing symptoms rather that the cause of allergy. The only effective way of dealing with milk allergy therefore remains avoidance of the causative milk proteins. This means avoiding milk and any other food products with milk as an ingredient.

Lactose intolerance

While milk allergy is caused by the body’s immune system’s reaction to milk proteins it perceives to be harmful, lactose intolerance is the body’s inability to digest sugars (lactose) available in milk. Milk contains two types sugars (lactose); galactose and glucose, which have to be broken down before they can be taken up by body cells. The enzyme responsible for breaking down or digesting lactose is the lactase enzyme. Failure by the body to break down lactose means that either there is very minimal amount of lactase or lack of it completely. The body’s failure to digest lactose leads to varied symptoms that are similar to those caused by milk allergy. Such include abdominal pain, diarrhea, feeling of nausea and bloating amongst others.

It is worth pointing out that the severity of symptoms is normally determined by the level of lactose in one’s body. This means that high levels of lactose in the body will automatically lead to severe symptoms. While it is necessary to avoid milk and milk products in case of milk allergy, those with lactose intolerance can still continue to consume milk and milk products comfortably as long as the symptoms are not serious.

Treating lactose intolerance is far much easier than treating milk allergy. This is because treating lactose intolerance only requires the use of lactase enzyme pills available in most health and food stores.

Steve Bridges is an expert on allergies, and is particulary well informed on milk allergies (which the Danes call mælkeallergi), which seem strange and uncommon, even compared to other types of allergies.

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