The difference between cow’s milk allergy and lactose intolerance

Cow's milk allergy

The difference between cow’s milk allergy and lactose intolerance

Dairy products are a staple in many people’s diet throughout the world. Sadly, many of us suffer adverse effects when we consume something like milk, cheese, or yoghurt. An allergy to cow’s milk is rare in adults but relatively common in babies and young children. Around one in fifty infants suffer from milk allergies with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. However, the majority of children outgrow their allergy by the time they’re 16.

Things can get confusing though as many people have physical reactions to milk that aren’t due to an allergy. You will have heard of it before – lactose intolerance. The symptoms can be similar to milk allergies, but the causes are very different.

Milk allergies

With a milk allergy, two proteins found in milk (whey and casein) cause an immune system reaction. Symptoms of this reaction can range from mild (skin rashes, vomiting, and a swollen tongue) to severe (difficulty breathing or anaphylaxis).

If symptoms appear immediately after your child has some cow’s milk, the allergy may be easier to diagnose. However, just because they don’t appear immediately doesn’t rule out a milk allergy. There are two types of milk allergy, which can occur minutes, hours or even days after consumption. It tends to affect infants who are just starting to have cow’s milk. It is slightly rarer in breast-fed infants, as some of the proteins are passed through the mother.

Lactose intolerance

Unlike milk allergies in children, lactose intolerance is a condition that cannot be outgrown. The digestive system cannot digest lactose because the body stops producing lactase enzymes.

Normally, these digestive enzymes break down the sugar lactose in the digestive tract. But when it can’t, it can cause unpleasant symptoms that affect the digestive system such as abdominal bloating, pain and cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. Unlike a milk allergy, the reaction is never fatal.

It’s important that if you or your child are showing signs of a milk allergy or lactose intolerance that you visit a health professional. To ease your mind, allergy tests can determine whether you or your child are allergic or lactose intolerant. You can then start to take the necessary steps to prevent future reactions.

Here at the London Allergy & Immunology Centre, this is our speciality. Don’t suffer in silence – find out what’s affecting you. To arrange an allergy test, book an appointment with one of our consultants today.

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