Lots of discussions are taking place across the world about the differences between milk allergies and lactose intolerance these days, so we're here to set the record straight and clear up any possible confusion. To be clear: each of these illnesses share a very similar set of symptoms, but a milk allergy can be life-threatening, and detection from a trusted doctor/physician is strongly recommended for accurate and concise results.
Milk allergy is sometimes referred to as dairy allergy, but this term should be used with caution. Dairy is a category of products that contain cow’s milk. Since this is a product category – not a single ingredient (such as milk) – it is not listed in ingredient statements on processed foods. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that products containing milk list it as an ingredient, and so when teaching others about this allergy, using the term milk instead of dairy can help them better read ingredient labels. The term “dairy allergy” can also cause confusion with egg allergy since eggs are usually located near the dairy product case in the grocery store. Using the specific term – milk allergy – helps to eliminate this confusion.
Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not involve the immune system. People who are lactose intolerant are missing the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. As a result, individuals who are lactose intolerant are unable to digest these foods, and may experience symptoms such as nausea, cramps, gas, bloating and diarrhea. While lactose intolerance can cause great discomfort, it is not life-threatening.
There are three main tests a doctor may perform in order to diagnose your specific ailment, which include:
- Hydrogen breath test. Undigested lactose produces high levels of hydrogen gas in your breath. Doctors can diagnose lactose intolerance by measuring this hydrogen after you drink a lactose-loaded beverage.
- Stool acidity test. Undigested lactose also increases the amount of acid in the stool. Doctors may use this test to diagnose lactose intolerance in young children.
- Food allergy testing. If your doctor suspects a milk allergy, you may be sent to an allergist for skin testing or have a blood sample drawn for laboratory allergy testing.
For both of these conditions, you’ll need to avoid or limit most dairy products, but it is important to make sure you are getting enough calcium.
If you have lactose intolerance, you may be able to tolerate small amounts of dairy. You can try hard cheeses and yogurt products, which tend to be lower in lactose than milk. There are also a variety of dairy-free foods that are high in calcium, including spinach, almonds, and dark leafy green vegetables.
If you have milk allergy, you need to read labels and avoid foods that have any dairy, including the ingredients casein, whey, lactulose, lactalbumin, and ghee.
If you or your child has symptoms that may be due to milk allergy or lactose intolerance, talk with your doctor. He or she can diagnose the problem and advise you on how best to avoid dairy while maintaining good nutrition, which is important no matter how young or old you are.