Dairy allergy is the most common food allergy in young kids, affecting about 2%–3% of those younger than 3 years old. Many kids outgrow it, but some are allergic for a lifetime. It is identified as an abnormal response by the body’s immune system to milk and products containing milk.. Cow’s milk is the usual cause of dairy allergy, but milk from sheep, goats and other mammals can also cause a reaction.
Allergy to milk is sometimes confused with lactose intolerance. Both can cause problems after drinking milk, but they are very different and unrelated. Lactose intolerance is annoying and can cause discomfort, but it is not life-threatening. Milk allergy, though, can make someone suddenly and severely ill, and can be life-threatening. That’s why milk and other dairy products must be completely avoided if you or your child has a milk allergy.
What are the signs?
An allergic reaction usually occurs soon after you or your child consumes milk. Signs and symptoms of milk allergy range from mild to severe and can include wheezing, vomiting, hives and digestive problems. Milk allergy can also cause anaphylaxis — a severe, life-threatening reaction.
When someone is allergic to milk, the body’s immune system, which normally fights infections, overreacts to proteins in the milk. Every time the person drinks or eats milk or other dairy products, the body thinks these proteins are harmful invaders and releases chemicals like histamine. The allergy symptoms can occur a few minutes to a few hours after you or your child drinks milk or eats milk products.
Immediate signs and symptoms of milk allergy might include:
- Itching or tingling feeling around the lips or mouth
- Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
- Coughing or shortness of breath
- Signs and symptoms that may take more time to develop include:
- Loose stools or diarrhea, which may contain blood
- Abdominal cramps
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
- Colic, in babies
How Is an Allergic Reaction to Milk Treated?
If your child has been diagnosed with a milk allergy (or any kind of serious food allergy), keep two epinephrine auto-injectors available in case of an emergency.
An epinephrine auto-injector is a prescription medicine that comes in a small, easy-to-carry container. It’s easy to use. Your doctor will show you how. Kids who are old enough can be taught how to give themselves the injection. If they carry the epinephrine, it should be nearby, not left in a locker or in the nurse’s office.
Every second counts in an allergic reaction. If your child starts having serious allergic symptoms, like swelling of the mouth or throat or trouble breathing, give the epinephrine auto-injector right away. Also give the epinephrine auto-injector right away if your child’s symptoms involve two different parts of the body, like hives with vomiting. Then call 911 or take your child to the emergency room. Your child needs to be under medical supervision because even if the worst seems to have passed, a second wave of serious symptoms can happen.
Will My Child Outgrow a Dairy Allergy?
Most children, up to 75%, eventually outgrow a milk allergy. The allergy is most likely to continue in children who have high levels of cow’s milk antibodies in their blood.
Blood tests that measure these antibodies can help your allergist determine whether or not a child is likely to outgrow a milk allergy.
Ingestion of baked forms of cow milk may help lead to tolerance or resolution of the allergy with time. Be sure to speak to your practitioner about a formal baked milk challenge before trialing at home.
As a mother, it’s painful to see your child in distress, especially from something as natural as eating. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends or family members. You can also find a support group to help you develop coping strategies. Knowing others are going through a similar situation is often enough to empower you to stay positive. Take comfort in the fact that many milk allergies can be controlled through dietary changes if you breastfeed or switch formulas.