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What is Dairy Allergy?
Dairy allergy is caused by an adverse immune response to any of dozens of proteins in milk, most often casein. A milk allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance, which is caused by deficiency of the enzyme lactase needed to digest the milk sugar lactose. Dairy allergies are most common in children. Most will develop a tolerance to milk as they get older. Those who are allergic to cow's milk should also avoid goat milk due to similar proteins that can also cause reactions.
Symptoms of Dairy Allergy
Dairy allergies cause a variety of symptoms in those exposed to any milk products, including derivatives like whey. Common symptoms include skin rash, hives, asthma and gastrointestinal issues like colic, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation. More serious reactions include angioedema which causes severe swelling of the face and throat and anaphylaxis that obstructs breathing and can be potentially fatal.
Dairy allergy symptoms can occur within a few minutes of exposure, or delayed reactions may take hours or even days. The most severe dairy allergies can require carrying an epinephrine shot at all times, particularly if anaphylaxis has occurred previously.
Diagnosing Dairy Allergy
Food allergies can be difficult to pinpoint. If a dairy allergy is suspected, your doctor will ask about the signs and symptoms, perform a physical exam and have you keep a detailed food diary. Often times an elimination diet is prescribed for a period of time after which dairy is reintroduced to see if there is a reaction.
Additional tests like skin tests and blood tests may also be performed. Skin tests are used for a variety of allergens, but are not always accurate for milk allergy detection. A blood test can measure the immune system response to milk by measuring certain antibodies in the bloodstream. The doctor may also administer an oral challenge, where different foods are given in increasing amounts to see if there is a reaction to the ones containing milk.
Help for Dairy Allergy
The only way to eliminate allergic reactions to dairy is to avoid all milk products. This can be very difficult since so many products contain them. It is important to read food labels carefully. Ingredients like casein, half-and-half, whey, and artificial butter and cheese flavors need to be avoided. Even if a food is labeled “non-dairy”, it can still contain milk proteins that can trigger an allergic response. Food preparation techniques in restaurants can also be problematic. Foods are often covered in butter or dipped in milk during preparation.
Hypoallergenic and milk-free products are available on the market. Those with severe allergies should consider wearing a medical alert bracelet or carrying an emergency kit with a shot of epinephrine. Those with less serious allergies or milk intolerance can benefit from enzymes and the use of homeopathic remedies to ease digestive upset and other symptoms caused by dairy consumption.