Living With a Dairy Allergy

A dairy allergy, or milk allergy, is an allergy to cow’s milk. Babies can be born with an allergy, or a normal adult can develop an allergy for reasons unknown. Most children outgrow their dairy allergy, but others carry their allergy until adulthood. Because cow’s milk is an essential ingredient in processed foods, having a dairy allergy can be quite a hassle even for adults.

What causes allergies in cow’s milk?

The composition of milk includes substances such as water, carbohydrates, lactose (milk sugar), minerals, fats, and several proteins. The casein and whey proteins are known to be allergenic.

When milk is fermented, it hardens and becomes curd, composed primarily of casein proteins. Whey protein is the liquid portion, the watery part left when the curd is removed. In milk proteins, 80 percent is casein and 20 percent is whey. Cheese is rich in casein. The harder the cheese, the more casein it has, and the more allergenic it can be.

What are the symptoms of dairy allergy?

Dairy allergies can cause either immediate or delayed hypersensitivity reactions. Immediate hypersensitivity symptoms appear within minutes of ingesting milk or milk-containing foods, while a delayed hypersensitivity reaction kicks in 6-24 hours after eating the food, peaks at 48 hours, and subsides 72-96 hours later.

Symptoms manifest on the skin, in the digestive system, or in the respiratory system.

On the skin, manifestations include itchy red rashes, hives, eczema, allergic “shiners” (dark circles under the eyes caused by increased blood flow near the sinuses), and swelling of the lips, mouth, tongue, face, and throat.

In the digestive system, particularly in our stomach and intestines, abdominal pain and bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea (which is usually very runny), cramps, and gas are likely symptoms.

In the respiratory system, the allergy can hit our nose, throat, or lungs with symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, watery or itchy eyes, wheezing, shortness of breath, or coughing, and in severe cases, an anaphylactic shock.

What are the best ways to manage a dairy allergy?

If your child has a dairy allergy, hope that they would outgrow it. This happens when the immune system gets accustomed to the allergen (milk protein), and eventually recognizes that it is harmless.

Still, like in all allergy cases, avoidance of milk and foods containing milk is the most effective treatment. Besides not drinking milk, a person allergic to milk proteins needs to read product labels carefully, or find appropriate milk substitutes.

On labels, watch out for ingredients such as butter, caramel flavoring, caseinate, cream, curds, high protein flour, lactalbumin, lactalbumin phosphate, lactoferrin, lactoglobulin, lactose, margarine, milk, buttermilk, milk derivative, milk fat, milk protein, milk solids, skim milk, powdered milk, dried milk, dry milk solids, sour milk solids, hydrolyzed milk protein, Opta (fat replacer), Simplesse (fat replacer), and whey, among others.

Take note also of milk-containing foods when you eat out. Surprisingly, processed meats, including sausages, hot dogs, and pepperoni, may contain hidden milk proteins, also found in fish fingers, pie crusts, crackers, and breakfast cereals.

Note that alternatives such as soy milk and goat’s milk might also cause reactions in some people with dairy allergies. Water, broth, or juice can also be adequate substitutes in some recipes. Also, rice milk is good for drinking, and it can also be used as a thickening agent when baking. It really depends which milk substitute will work, depending on your bodily responses.

If you have a dairy allergy, see an allergist today for advice on the most appropriate treatment.

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