People who don't have a milk allergy may think it's easy to avoid eating foods that are made with milk or milk products. You just say "no" to ice cream and pizza, right? (Yeah, like that's easy.)
But so many foods are made with milk and milk products these days that people with milk allergies have to pay attention to what's in just about everything they eat. And a milk allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance — some people with food allergies can become suddenly and severely ill if they eat or even come in contact with the food they're allergic to.
Some foods that contain milk are obvious, like pizza. But others, like baked goods, may not be so obvious. Plus, teens need calcium and vitamin D, which milk has lots of, because their bones are still growing. So what should a person who's allergic to milk do? Read on to find out.
What Happens When Someone Has a Milk Allergy?
People who are allergic to cow's milk react to one or more of the proteins in it. Curd, the substance that forms chunks in sour milk, contains 80% of milk's proteins, including several called caseins (pronounced: kay-seenz). Whey (pronounced: way), the watery part of milk, holds the other 20%. A person may be allergic to proteins in either or both parts of milk.
When a person who is allergic to milk eats a food that contains milk products, the body's immune system mistakenly sees the milk proteins as dangerous "invaders." The immune system responds by creating specific antibodies, which are designed to fight off the "invader." These antibodies — called immunoglobulin E (IgE) — trigger the release of certain chemicals into the body, one of which is histamine (pronounced: hiss-tuh-meen).
So when a person with a milk allergy eats a food that contains milk, the immune system unleashes an army of chemicals to protect the body. The release of these chemicals can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, and the cardiovascular system — causing allergy symptoms like wheezing, nausea, headache, stomachache, and itchy hives.
Milk allergy is like most food allergy reactions: It usually happens within minutes to hours after eating foods that contain milk proteins. Most reactions last less than a day and may affect any of three body systems:
- the skin — in the form of red, bumpy rashes (hives), eczema, or redness and swelling around the mouth
- the gastrointestinal tract — in the form of belly cramps, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
- the respiratory tract — symptoms can range from a runny nose, itchy, watery eyes, and sneezing to the triggering of asthma with coughing and wheezing
Most people have some of the reactions listed above, but a few people may have a very strong reaction called anaphylaxis (pronounced: ah-nuh-fuh-lak-sis). This severe allergic reaction causes swelling of the mouth, throat, and airways leading to the lungs, resulting in an inability to breathe. In addition, there is a dangerous drop in blood pressure, which can make someone dizzy or pass out, and may quickly lead to shock.
People often confuse milk allergy with lactose intolerance because people can have the same kinds of things happening to them (like stomach pains or bloating, for example) with both conditions. But the conditions are not related. Milk allergy is a problem involving the immune system, but lactose intolerance involves the digestive system. For someone who is lactose intolerant, the digestive system doesn't produce enough of the enzyme needed to break down the sugar in milk.
How Can Doctors Tell If It's a Milk Allergy?
If your doctor suspects you might have a milk allergy, he or she will probably refer you to an allergist or allergy specialist for further testing. The allergy specialist will ask you questions. These may cover things like how often you have the reaction, the time it takes between eating a particular food and the start of the symptoms, and whether any family members have allergies or conditions like eczema and asthma.
The allergy specialist may perform a skin test on you. This test involves placing liquid extracts of milk protein on a person's forearm or back, pricking the skin a tiny bit, and waiting to see if a reddish, raised spot forms, indicating an allergic reaction.
You may need to stop taking anti-allergy medications (such as over-the-counter antihistamines) 2 to 3 days before the skin test because they can interfere with the results. Most cold medications as well as some antidepressants may also affect skin testing. Check with the allergist's office if you are unsure about what medications need to be stopped and for how long.
Some doctors may also take a blood sample and send it to a lab where it will be mixed with some of the suspected allergen and checked for IgE antibodies.
These types of tests are used for diagnosing what doctors call a fast-onset type of milk allergy. But for people whose allergic reactions to milk develop more slowly, skin and blood tests are not as helpful.
In these cases doctors try to diagnose the person using a food challenge. The person is told not to eat or drink anything made with milk for a period of time — usually a few weeks. Then, during the challenge, the person eats foods containing milk under a doctor's close supervision. If symptoms come back after eating milk products, it's a pretty sure bet the person has a milk allergy.
How Is It Treated?
To treat a milk allergy, the person who is allergic needs to completely avoid any foods that contain milk or milk products.
Avoiding milk involves more than just leaving the cheese off your sandwich. If you are allergic to milk, you need to read food labels carefully and not eat anything that you're not sure about. It's a good idea to work with a registered dietitian to develop an eating plan that provides all the nutrients you need while avoiding things you can't eat.
If you have a severe milk allergy — or any kind of serious allergy — your doctor may want you to carry a shot of epinephrine (pronounced: eh-puh-neh-frin) with you in case of an emergency. Epinephrine comes in an easy-to-carry container about the size of a large marker. It's easy to use — your doctor will show you how.
If you accidentally eat something with milk in it and start having serious allergic symptoms, like swelling inside your mouth, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, you can give yourself the shot right away to counteract the reaction while you're waiting for medical help. Always call for emergency help (911) when using epinephrine. You should make sure your school and even good friends' houses have injectable epinephrine on hand, too.
Keeping epinephrine on hand at all times should be just part of your action plan for living with a milk allergy. It's also a good idea to carry an over-the-counter antihistamine as this can help alleviate allergy symptoms in some people. Antihistamines should be used in addition to the epinephrine and not as a replacement for the shot.
If you've had to take an epinephrine shot because of an allergic reaction, then you should go immediately to a medical facility or hospital emergency room so they can give you additional treatment if you need it. Up to one third of anaphylactic reactions can have a second wave of symptoms several hours following the initial attack. Therefore, you might need to be observed in a clinic or hospital for 4 to 8 hours following the reaction.
Living With a Milk Allergy
It may be challenging to eliminate milk from your diet, but it's not impossible. Because most people don't get enough calcium in their diets even if they do drink milk, many other foods are now enriched with calcium, such as juices, cereals, and rice and soy beverages. But before you eat or drink anything calcium enriched, make sure it's also dairy free.
Milk and milk products can lurk in strange places, such as processed meats. Chocolate is another product that may contain dairy — so be sure to check the label before you eat it.
Manufacturers of foods sold in the United States must list on their labels whether a food contains any of the most common allergens. This means that you should be able to find statements like these somewhere on the label: "contains milk ingredients," "made with milk ingredients," or "processed in a facility that also processes milk products."
This new labeling requirement makes it a little easier than reading the ingredients list — instead needing to know that the ingredient "hydrolyzed casein" comes from milk protein, you should be able to tell at a glance which foods to avoid. But it's still a good idea to get to know the "code words" for milk products when you see them in the ingredients of a food. Some ingredients and foods that contain milk are:
- casein, calcium casein, casein hydrolysate, magenesium casein, potassium casein, rennet casein, sodium casein
- dairy products like cheese, yogurt, milk, pudding
- butter, butter flavoring, butter fat
- lactalbumin, lactoalbumin phosphate, lactaglobulin, lactose
- non-dairy creamers
- whey, whey hydrolysate
Vegan foods are made without animal products, such as eggs or milk. You can buy vegan products at health food stores. Be careful to read the labels of soy cheeses, though. They may say "milk-free," but they could contain milk protein.
For your sweet tooth, soy- or rice-based frozen desserts, sorbets, and puddings are good substitutes for ice cream, as are ice pops. For baking, milk substitutes work as well as milk and some come out better. Dairy-free margarine works as well as butter for recipes and spreading on your bagel.
Try to avoid fried foods or foods with batter on them. Even if the batter doesn't contain milk products, the oil used to fry the foods may have been used to fry something that contains milk.
People are usually understanding when it comes to food allergies — nobody wants to risk your health. When eating out, order the simplest foods and ask the waitstaff detailed questions about menu items. At a friend's house, explain your situation and don't be embarrassed to ask questions if you're staying for a meal.
Having a milk allergy doesn't mean you can't still enjoy eating. In fact, some people think that some of the milk substitutes — like vanilla soy milk — taste better than regular cow's milk. As with any specialized diet, you'll probably find avoiding milk gives you the opportunity to explore and discover some great foods that you'd never have found otherwise!
Reviewed by: D. Pauline Williams, MPA, RD, CD
Date reviewed: November 2009
Originally reviewed by: Susan Konek, MA, RD, CSP