Why Do So Many Children Have Milk Allergies?

Food allergies are the most common causes of a potentially life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. Since milk and dairy products tops the list of the eight most allergenic foods, it’s important to know how to avoid exposure to dairy products and be able to spot the symptoms of an allergic reaction if a milk product is ingested.

A milk allergy is a type of immune response triggered by ingesting products containing milk proteins and other dairy products. The immune system normally reacts to allergens by protecting us from any kind of a negative response. However, the immune response of an individual with a food allergy is oversensitive. When faced with an allergen, the system reacts by releasing substances that cause allergy symptoms.

Milk Allergy Symptoms

of children under 3 years old are allergic to milk Many children later outgrow their dairy allergy

Most often seen in infants and children, an allergy to dairy products can appear at any age. About 2.5% of children under three years old are allergic to milk, and most develop this allergy in the first year of life. The good news is that many children later grow out of their milk allergies, though it may take many years.

People with a milk allergy may experience an allergic reaction to products containing milk anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after consuming the allergen. In severe cases, milk allergies can result in anaphylaxis, a sudden, severe, and life-threatening allergic reaction that can involve several areas of the body.

In severe cases, milk allergies can also result in anaphylaxis, a sudden, severe, and life-threatening allergic reaction that can involve several areas of the body.

Most Common Symptoms of Milk Allergies

  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Chronic nasal stuffiness in babies
  • Eczema
  • Tingling or swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Milk Allergy vs. Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance and milk allergy can often be confused since some of the symptoms are the same. However, the two health conditions are caused by fundamentally different elements of milk:

  • Milk allergies are caused by an allergic reaction to the proteins in milk (casein and whey)
  • Lactose intolerance is caused by a difficulty in digesting lactose, the natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products, due to the individual missing an enzyme known as lactase.

Individuals with lactose intolerance usually experience symptoms similar to milk allergies, such as gas, abdominal cramping, or diarrhea.

Avoiding Exposure to Milk Products

Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction. So, in order to prevent an allergic reaction to dairy, you must avoid milk and milk products in all forms. Examine the label for the following ingredients and foods:

Ingredients That Can Trigger Milk Allergies

  • Milk in all forms including condensed, evaporated, and powdered milk, and milk from mammals such as goat or sheep.
  • Casein and casein hydroxylates
  • Caseinates (such as sodium caseinate)
  • Whey
  • Lactalbumin, lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and lactulose
  • Butter including butter fat, butter oil, and artificial butter flavor
  • Buttermilk
  • Cheese and cream cheese
  • Cream, half-and-half, and ice cream
  • Custard, pudding, and yogurt
  • Ghee
  • Sour cream and sour milk

Additionally, all dairy products contain the milk proteins casein and whey, but casein is also present in several other nondairy items including some canned tuna, sausage, meats, and commercial protein powders.

Consumers should also be aware of the terms “dairy-free,” and “non-dairy,” as they apply to labeling on food products. The FDA has not established any regulations regarding the use of “dairy-free” on food packaging, which leaves many wondering if the item is indeed free from any milk products. While the “non-dairy” label does have a regulatory definition, some products may still include the milk protein “casein.”

Infant Exposure to Milk Products

If an infant is allergic to milk products and is breastfed, it’s important for the mom to avoid dairy products since proteins from the milk products she consumes can cross into the breast milk and cause the infant to have a reaction. For infants who are formula fed, a doctor may advise switching to an extensively hydrolyzed formula which is less likely to trigger an allergic reaction.

Ultimately, the best way to stay safe is to read the ingredient statements on food packages and identify any evidence of milk products.

Regulations Related to Milk Allergies

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is primarily responsible for enforcing the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which requires that food labels clearly identify the food source names of any ingredients that are one of the major food allergens (including milk) or contain any protein derived from a major food allergen.

The law further explains that the name of the food source of a major food allergen must appear in parentheses following the name of the ingredient—for example, “whey (milk).” The allergen may also appear immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement—for example, “Contains milk.”