The distinction between food allergy and food intolerance is important. While intolerance can cause discomfort and serious medical issues, a food allergy can actually be life-threatening. Lactose intolerance is one of the most common food intolerances, and it is important to know the difference between this and a milk allergy and to be diagnosed and treated appropriately.
Intolerance vs. Allergy
A true food allergy is a response to a protein in a specific food that triggers an immune system response. This response may be uncomfortable and cause a variety of symptoms, but it also has the potential to cause anaphylaxis, a medical emergency that can be deadly. Food intolerance on the other hand results most often from the lack of an enzyme needed to digest a certain food. Other possible causes of intolerance include sensitivity to additives in food, stress and other psychological factors, and having irritable bowel syndrome.
Milk Allergy and What it Looks Like
A milk allergy is a true immune system response to cow’s milk. About two to three percent of children are allergic to milk, and it is one of the top eight food allergens responsible for the majority of allergies. Approximately 80 percent of children with a milk allergy will outgrow it by the age of 16. Symptoms of milk allergies may include:
- Upset stomach
- Bloody stool
Someone who is allergic to milk has to avoid milk and any products that contain milk, including cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter. Any food that contains casein or whey, the two milk proteins that cause allergies, must be avoided, too. A wide range of processed foods may have these proteins: meat products, protein powders and even chewing gum.
Lactose Intolerance Symptoms
Lactose is a sugar found naturally in milk, and this is the culprit in dairy intolerance. People with lactose intolerance lack the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down this sugar. The primary symptoms that lactose causes in someone with this intolerance are digestive:
- Stomach cramps
- Gas and bloating
Unlike a milk allergy, having lactose intolerance does not mean a person has to give up milk and dairy entirely. The severity of symptoms varies by individual and some can tolerate eating some dairy. To avoid symptoms entirely, though, it’s best to just avoid milk and milk products. Because it is lactose and not the milk proteins that cause the intolerance, it is not necessary to avoid processed foods that have added casein or whey.
Some people use the terms milk allergy and lactose intolerance interchangeably, but this is inaccurate and confusing. It can lead to dangerous risks because milk and milk products can be life-threatening for someone with a true allergy. If you or your child has a bad reaction to a dairy product, see your doctor for an allergy test. This is especially true for your child, as milk allergy is much more common in children. You need to know which issues is causing symptoms so you can practice appropriate avoidance.