Milk Allergy or Intolerance?

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When we think about milk we tend to think about all the products that are made from milk such as yoghurts, butter, ice cream, cheese, chocolate etc.  It is the white liquid we drink that is produced by female animals; most readily available from cows, sheep or goats. Milk provides the primary source of nutrition for babies before they are able to digest other types of food. In many cultures of the world, especially the Western world, humans continue to consume milk beyond infancy; humans are the exception in the natural world for consuming milk past infancy. Milk is commonly processed into dairy products such as cream, butter, yoghurt, ice cream, and cheese. Milk is also found in many other foods including breakfast cereals, soups, processed meats, pizza, sauces, bread, ready meals, puddings and custards, cakes and sweets to name a few.

Symptoms include swelling, itching, hives (red lumps on the skin), vomiting and wheezing

A milk allergy, like most food allergies, occur during early infancy and cows’ milk protein allergy is one of the most common but, thankfully, many children grow out of this allergy by 5 years old. Around 6-8% of children suffer from food allergies, and only about 2% of adults. Food allergies happen when the body’s immune system sees harmless proteins in foods as foreign. It is the release of the chemical histamine during this reaction which causes typical allergy symptoms that we recognise as allergy. These symptoms include swelling, itching, hives (red lumps on the skin), vomiting and wheezing, and they come on very quickly. In more severe cases there can be breathing difficulties which in rare cases can be fatal. Milk allergy can be tested using a blood test for milk-specific IgE antibodies, but more commonly a skin prick test will be used. These tests will be carried out by your doctor or in an allergy clinic and you should refer to your doctor if you think that you or your child has an allergy.

If you have milk allergy or milk protein intolerance then you should avoid all animal milks as the milks from cows, sheep and goats are all very similar

Milk intolerance is very different to milk allergy and there are very different reasons why milk may not be tolerated. Milk intolerance can be due to the milk sugar (lactose) not being tolerated, or the milk proteins not being tolerated, or indeed both of these not being tolerated. In more detail:-

Milk sugar (lactose) intolerance

Milk sugar intolerance is a relatively common complaint; in Europe it varies from around 5% of the population in the UK up to about 70% in Sicily. It is not an allergic condition, but an inability to digest lactose because of low levels of lactase the enzyme in the body responsible for digesting lactose.  It can affect both children and adults, and the common symptoms are diarrhoea, bloating and discomfort.

Milk protein intolerance

Milk protein intolerance is thought to affect well over 40% of the population. Milk (protein) intolerance causes a delayed response, taking up to 3 days to cause symptoms, and can result in a wide range of chronic symptoms such as irritable bowel (IBS), bloating, constipation, migraines, headaches, runny nose, sinusitis, lethargy, skin rashes, eczema and low mood. These delayed reactions to milk proteins are easily tested for by measuring milk-specific IgG antibodies in blood. This food-specific IgG test does not test for milk allergy or lactose intolerance though and it is not available on the NHS.

If you have milk allergy or milk protein intolerance then you should avoid all animal milks as the milks from cows, sheep and goats are all very similar. However, if you have lactose intolerance then you can try lactose free cow’s milk; remember though that a lot of people suffer from both lactose intolerance and milk protein intolerance together. Luckily now there are many different alternatives to milk, as well as lactose free milk, appearing on our shelves which make managing milk intolerance and milk allergy a lot easier. There are also stringent regulations for labeling of processed foods which means that if milk or milk proteins have been used in the process then it should say on the label; checking labels is very important when it comes to allergies and intolerances.

Some of the replacements for animal milks include milk made from hazelnuts, almonds, rice, hemp, oats and coconut, and of course soya. Before choosing replacement milk you should ensure that you don’t have intolerance to any of the ingredients in the replacement milk. Also check calcium levels to ensure that the replacement milk is giving you sufficient calcium; most milk alternatives are fortified with calcium anyway and so this isn’t usually a problem.
Why not try our FirstStep Test to see if you could have a food intolerance?