A dairy allergy is a tricky thing. It’s one of the most common allergies in children — but some people don’t grow out of it. Plus, since our bodies are constantly changing, it never hurts to look for signs that you’re allergic to dairy. But first, it’s important to distinguish the difference between an allergy and intolerance. About 65 percent of people, after all, are intolerant to lactose.
According to Neeta Ogden, M.D., an adult and pediatric allergist, asthma specialist, and immunologist in New Jersey, an allergy occurs when the body fights substances it thinks are foreign invaders. It does this by activating antibodies, or protein that target a specific substance. This causes inflammation and results in irritating allergy symptoms. “Food intolerance,” Dr. Ogden tells Bustle, “is due to our body’s inability to process certain proteins such as lactose in milk or gluten.”
It’s also crucial to clarify the meaning of a “dairy allergy.” Technically, a more accurate term is “milk allergy,” Joanna Eaton, MSPH, RD, a registered dietitian in Maryland, tells Bustle. “[Milk] is the actual food they are allergic to, versus the category of food (ie: dairy).”
Even if you weren’t allergic as a child, knowing the signs and symptoms of a milk allergy will help you get in tune with your body. Not sure where to begin? Check out this list of potential symptoms. If you experience any of these after consuming dairy, talk to an allergist. They’ll help you understand exactly what you should avoid. Your body will thank you!
1. Swollen Throat
When your immune system thinks it's under siege, it reacts by releasing chemicals called histamines. These guys are produced to get the alleged allergens out of your body. In doing so, they cause swelling and inflammation, and your throat is often the first to feel it. Eventually, your lips and tongue can swell up too.
If this happens after consuming a milk product — or any food, for that matter — take an antihistamine as soon as possible. You can also help soothe your throat by gulping down cold water.
2. Wheezing And Coughing
A swollen throat can eventually lead to wheezing and a pesky cough. Some people may even experience vomiting.
Regardless, throat-related symptoms should be taken seriously, especially if you have trouble breathing. It may be a sign of anaphylaxis, a severe life-threatening reaction. “[It] causes airways to constrict and impair breathing,” Eaton explains.
This is precisely why it’s so crucial to visit a specialist if you suspect a milk allergy. “It’s important to see a board-certified allergist who can test for [it],” Dr. Ogden tells Bustle. “If you have an allergy, you will need an Epipen and allergy action plan.”
When it comes to allergic reactions, some people develop a skin rash called hives, or urticaria. They’re characterized by smooth, pink bumps that cause a burning sensation. Hives can develop anywhere on the body within just a few minutes.
This is another result of the immune system causing inflammation in response to an allergen. If you develop hives after consuming milk, try scrubbing the area with soap and water. The hives will also subside after taking allergy medicine. Do your best to avoid scratching the heck out of the bumps; this may lead to scarring and bleeding. Ouch.
4. Facial Flushing
Another result of an inflamed immune system is facial flushing. This flushing, which might also affect the neck and chest, is usually accompanied with a rise in body temperature. The skin may be warm to the touch, too.
If you have facial flushing after eating a milk product, it's likely that you also have one or more of the previous signs. It’s your body's way of telling you that something is up.
5. Abdominal Cramps
While abdominal cramps are often seen in lactose intolerance, Mayo Clinic shares that it can show up in milk allergies too. Other possible symptoms include loose stools and diarrhea, which may be bloody.
So, are your stomach pains caused by an allergy or intolerance? The only way to know for sure is to visit a primary care doctor or allergist. They’ll be able to determine what’s going on based on your medical history, symptoms, and specialized tests.
If you do have a milk allergy, Eaton recommends being diligent about checking food labels on processed foods. “Milk can be hidden in meat products such as sausage, deli meats, and hot dogs,” she says.
“Check for these ‘hidden’ milk proteins: lactalbumin, whey lactoferrin and lactoglobulin, butter, and ghee. Someone with a true milk/dairy allergy should avoid these ingredients.”
This article was originally published on April 4, 2016 and was updated on July 1, 2019.
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