5 Signs Your ‘Lactose Intolerance’ Is a Full-Blown Dairy Allergy

  • Abdominal cramps and pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea

Lactose intolerance is also more common in adults and tends to develop with age. That’s because, as you get older, your body starts to produce less lactase, an enzyme that is needed to effectively break down lactose10. So, even if you’ve enjoyed dairy products throughout your life, you can start to develop symptoms due to an intolerance at any time.

What causes a dairy allergy?

“A true allergy to dairy is caused when your immune system develops allergy antibodies against cow’s milk or the protein in cow’s milk,” says Purvi Parikh, M.D.11, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, a nonprofit organization and network for patients and health care providers.

When you drink milk or eat dairy, your immune system encounters certain milk proteins. But if you’re allergic, it identifies these proteins as a threat and in turn triggers the production of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to combat them. This switch can flip even after you’ve ingested milk products without any trouble, per the Cleveland Clinic.

“It’s not entirely clear what causes this immune system dysregulation, and a host of factors are likely responsible,” says Dr. Ligresti. You could be at a higher risk of developing a dairy allergy if you have other allergies; atopic dermatitis (a common chronic skin condition); or a family history of allergies or allergic diseases like hay fever, asthma, hives, or eczema.

Whatever the cause, the next time you’re exposed to dairy, IgE antibodies recognize these proteins as dangerous intruders and alert your immune system to release histamine. It’s this chemical that causes a flood of allergy symptoms throughout your body, per the Mayo Clinic.

To add to the complexity of dairy allergies, ingesting dairy can sometimes cause delayed reactions many hours later—especially in infants and young children. This phenomenon is called food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES), which some experts distinguish as a food hypersensitivity12, while others refer to it as a non-IgE mediated food allergy13, since the underlying mechanism is not fully understood. Cow’s milk, soy, and grains are the most common food triggers for FPIES. Thankfully, most kids outgrow it in a few years, says Dr. Sindher.

What are the symptoms of a dairy allergy?

When your immune system releases histamine, it recruits a whole host of immune cells and together they trigger massive, runaway inflammation and irritation throughout the body, says Dr. Parikh. Here’s what could follow and how to deal.

1. Swelling in your face and throat or wheezing

Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can happen fast after you ingest dairy. A swollen face, throat, and mouth that could cause the sensation of a lump in your throat or difficulty breathing are some of the most urgent signs that you need emergency medical care, says Dr. Sindher. Treatment includes an epinephrine shot (EpiPen), an exam at the ER, and a follow-up appointment with a specialist to ensure you’re prepared to prevent and manage potential reactions in the future.

2. A rapid pulse

If you feel like your heart’s racing or fluttering in your chest after you’ve ingested dairy, this is another potential sign of anaphylaxis. In this case, it’s essential to reach out for help immediately14.

3. Dizziness, light-headedness, or loss of consciousness

Wooziness or even fainting could also indicate anaphylaxis. Again, head to the emergency room or call for emergency transport immediately.

4. Skin hives

An itchy rash can also be a sign of a dairy allergy, arising anywhere within minutes to 2-3 hours after exposure. If you have hives on your face or body—which look like a flush of red bumps—along with other signs of a serious allergic reaction like trouble breathing or respiratory issues, seek medical attention immediately. Otherwise, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist to determine what could be irritating your skin15. Regardless of the source, the first-line treatment for hives usually includes antihistamines, medications that block the effects of the histamine triggering the hives, or a steroid medication, which reduces inflammation.

5. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

When a wave of inflammation strikes your G.I. tract due to a dairy allergy, this can trigger an upset stomach, vomiting, or even bloody stool (especially in infants). In particular, FPIES can trigger severe vomiting and diarrhea16. So if you have a baby who can’t stop throwing up after drinking formula several hours before, head to the doctor for an exam, says Dr. Sindher. 

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