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Dairy Allergy vs Lactose Intolerance

Often, having a dairy allergy is confused with simply being lactose intolerant, when, in fact, this is farther from the truth.

* Disclaimer: this is an educational article only. Just Allergy Things is not liable to give medical advice. Please contact your doctor/allergist if you suspect you have either of these conditions. *

What is a dairy allergy?

A food allergy is when your body, specifically your immune system, reacts to a specific protein. It can lead to a variety of symptoms depending on the severity, such as hives and swelling to trouble breathing and loss of consciousness.

A dairy allergy includes not only avoiding milk but any products that contain dairy, such as butter, cheese, and ice cream.

What is a lactose intolerance?

A lactose intolerance is when a person doesn’t produce lactase, making them unable to digest lactose, a sugar in milk. Most symptoms are mild, consisting of stomach pain, diarrhea, and gas.

It can develop over time if your lactase levels become too low. Also, it could happen after surgery or damage to your small intestine, leading to lessened to no production of lactase.

What is the difference?

While allergic reactions directly impact the immune system, having a lactose intolerance only affects the digestion of cow's milk. This difference highlights the variety in symptoms when experiencing either one of these conditions; while many allergic reactions affect your ability to breathe, lactose intolerance causes more stomach pains and other issues.

This difference in symptoms shows the contrast of severity in these conditions as well. While having a lactose intolerance may cause mild pain and/or discomfort, a person with a dairy allergy experiencing an allergic reaction could be life-threatening. This is important to remember when being around someone with either one of these conditions, as having an allergy or intolerance can foster different needs.

Additionally, being lactose intolerant is a lot more common and well-known, especially with around 65% of the US population having some degree of intolerance to lactose. Meanwhile, it's approximated that only 1.8% of people in the US have a dairy allergy. This emphasizes that both conditions are vastly different and target separate groups.

Are there any treatments?

While there is no direct cure for either lactose intolerance or a dairy allergy, there are things you can do to help prevent harm to the individual by substituting dairy products for their non-dairy substitutes.

Many widespread stores have lactose-free milk. Lactose is absent from these products, which allows lactose intolerant people to drink it with more ease. Also, doctors can provide supplements that contain lactase to help lessen the intolerance. One popular brand is Lactaid, which lessens bloating and gas caused by lactose intolerance.

Meanwhile, the main recommendation for a dairy allergy, especially if severe, is to avoid dairy entirely. Luckily nowadays, there are many dairy-free substitutes, namely soy, oat, coconut, and almond milk. Even for ice cream and butter, there are many substitutions to prevent dairy exposure. However, if your allergy is less severe, it's possible to lessen the reactions or get rid of it entirely. One proposed solution is to undergo oral immunotherapy (OIT) at a food allergy clinic, which gives miniscule doses of your allergen to build immunity.

In conclusion, when someone considers your dairy allergy to simply be a “lactose intolerance," you can share these simple facts to educate them. Hopefully more people will be aware of how different these two conditions are.


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