Pediatric Gastroenterology

Does My Child Have a Milk Allergy or Milk Intolerance? What Is The Difference?

Your child seems to be having issues with milk and other dairy products. You have been told by friends that your child is probably allergic to milk, but you are not sure. Many parents confuse milk allergy with milk intolerance, and many parents do not even realize there is a difference.

A milk allergy and milk intolerance can both produce similar symptoms and make a child ill. However, the major difference between a milk allergy and a milk intolerance is that a milk allergy can cause a life-threatening reaction.

Milk Allergy

A milk allergy happens when your child’s immune system sees the protein component of milk as a threat or invader in the body. The immune system reacts to protect your child. During this reaction, chemicals are released that trigger allergic symptoms that can affect the skin, respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system. The body responds by causing symptoms that include:

  • trouble breathing or wheezing
  • tightening of the throat
  • swelling of the lips and tongue
  • hoarseness
  • hives
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea

Sometimes, even ingesting a small amount of milk protein can lead to a severe life-threatening reaction.

The diagnosis of milk allergy is made by blood and/or skin testing.

The treatment for a milk allergy is complete avoidance of all milk protein-containing products from your child’s diet. Your child’s school and all caregivers must be made aware that your child is allergic to milk so milk is not given to them by mistake.

Talk to your child’s physician about appropriate medications to use and having an EpiPen available for emergencies.

Milk Intolerance

milk intolerance happens when your child’s body is unable to digest the lactose sugar found in dairy products. A milk intolerance can cause symptoms that include:

The symptoms of a milk intolerance can be unpleasant for your child, but they are not dangerous. A milk intolerance does not activate the immune system, so there no risk of a life-threatening reaction.

The diagnosis of milk intolerance can be made through a trial of milk elimination, a breath test, or an upper endoscopy.

The treatment for milk intolerance involves using enzyme supplements or eating lactose-free foods. Most children with milk intolerances can tolerate a small amount of dairy each day without having symptoms. Talk to your child’s physician about the best treatment option for your child.

The Difference

A milk allergy is a life-threatening reaction to the protein in milk and a milk intolerance is a non-life-threatening reaction to the sugar in milk. Both milk allergy and milk intolerance can cause problems for your child, so speak to your child’s physician about your concerns.

If you would like more information about gastrointestinal (GI) digestive disorders and nutrition in children, please contact Dr. Mona Dave’s Plano Office or Southlake Office.