Lactose intolerance vs. Cow’s milk allergy: is there a difference?

Lactose intolerance vs. Cow’s milk allergy: is there a difference?

Picture this: It’s Tuesday Night; you’re walking home after your friend has invited you as a guest to their monthly Homage2Fromage cheese night. You’d had a brilliant time, but you’re feeling rough, and it’s a race to get the key in the door to get some relief. You hate to admit to yourself that it was the cheese, but it’s not the first time this has happened, and it’s time to do something about it. But what really is the underlying cause? Is it lactose intolerance or a cow’s milk allergy? Are they the same thing? 

Actually, no. There are undoubtedly similarities. Both conditions involve dairy products. However, it’s essential to understand that they are distinct issues with different causes, symptoms, and management strategies. 

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a digestive condition where the body lacks enough lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. This deficiency leads to difficulties in digesting lactose, resulting in gastrointestinal symptoms. Typically, you might feel bloated, sick, and gassy and have an uncomfortable relationship with the toilet. It’s generally after eating or drinking something containing lactose that puts you in a tailspin. 

What is cow’s milk allergy?

Cow’s milk allergy (CMA), on the other hand, is an immune system reaction to one or more proteins found in cow’s milk. It is one of the most common food allergies in infants and young children, though some outgrow it by adulthood. For those adults who don’t grow out of a cow’s milk allergy, the results are typically more severe. The body’s immune system mistakenly identifies milk proteins as harmful, triggering an allergic response. While both demonstrate gastrointestinal symptoms such as sickness, diarrhoea, and abdominal cramps, symptoms of CMA can be more extreme and concerning:

  • Skin reactions (hives, rash, eczema)
  • Respiratory problems (wheezing, nasal congestion, coughing)
  • In severe cases, anaphylaxis (a life-threatening reaction)

Critical differences between lactose intolerance and cow’s milk allergy

As well as different causes and symptoms, there are a few key separators between the two. Lactose intolerance commonly develops in adulthood, while cow’s milk allergy typically appears in infancy or early childhood. Cow’s milk allergy can cause more severe and potentially life-threatening reactions compared to lactose intolerance. They have different management needs, too. Lactose intolerance is managed by reducing or eliminating lactose from the diet, using lactase supplements, or choosing lactose-free products. Cow’s milk allergy requires strict avoidance of cow’s milk and all dairy products, and in some cases, carrying an epi-pen, just in case. 

What do you do if you suspect CMA or lactose intolerance?

While lactose intolerance and cow’s milk allergy both involve reactions to dairy products, they are fundamentally different conditions. Understanding these differences is crucial for proper diagnosis, management, and treatment. If you suspect you or one of your loved ones has lactose intolerance or a cow’s milk allergy, it’s a good idea to get a test to get to the bottom of the issue. With the right knowledge and approach, both conditions can be successfully managed for a healthy, comfortable life.

Reacting adversely to dairy doesn’t need to feel scary. If you’re worried you might have lactose intolerance or a cow’s milk allergy, it’s time to do something about it. Register as a new patient today, and let’s start the process of helping you feel better. You have the option to visit our London-based allergy clinic for a comprehensive evaluation by our specialists or take advantage of our home allergy test.


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