Dairy products seem to find their way into almost every aspect of our diet – from the milk we add to our breakfast cereal to the shellfish that are dipped in milk to reduce that fishy odor. But a large part of the population suffers health consequences from consuming dairy products, either because they are allergic to them or because they have a lactose intolerance. But how do we know the difference? It turns out that lactose intolerance and dairy allergy are two distinct issues that involve completely different systems in the body.
Lactose Intolerance – A Digestive Disorder
In lactose intolerance, it is the digestive system itself that has the problem. Lactase, the enzyme necessary for breaking down lactose, the sugar in dairy products, is missing from the small intestine. When lactose isn’t broken down in the small intestine, it continues down the digestive tract to the colon where the bacteria that normally live there start snacking on it. This produces the gas that causes bloating and discomfort. The undigested sugar in the intestines grabs onto water that would normally be absorbed, causing diarrhea.
If you find out you are lactose intolerant, you can avoid milk products to prevent any symptoms. You might also take a supplemental lactase enzyme to help you digest lactose when you choose to consume it. There are some reduced-lactose dairy products available in grocery stores as well.
Dairy Allergy – An Immune Disorder
Dairy allergy is a separate disorder that involves an entirely different system – the immune system. In this case, the immune system responds to proteins in dairy as if they are foreign invaders (sort of like it does for bacteria or viruses). It attacks these proteins, which cause symptoms similar to lactose intolerance, but it doesn’t stop there. It can also cause hives, rash, swelling, wheezing, and difficulty swallowing. Severe allergies can result in anaphylactic shock – a life-threatening reaction to the allergen.
Allergy symptoms usually arise within minutes after consuming dairy, but they may sometimes take up to several hours to appear.
If you are diagnosed with an allergy to dairy, you must avoid consuming any dairy products or food prepared with dairy products. This means you must carefully read all labels to identify the presence of milk proteins, which can be found in unexpected places like hot dogs and canned tuna.
How Can You Tell Which is Which?
Sometimes, particularly with milder allergies, it is difficult to distinguish the two issues. It is important to get an accurate diagnosis because dairy consumption can be life-threatening in those with dairy allergies. Although dairy consumption can be uncomfortable in lactose intolerance, it isn’t immediately dangerous. It can however limit your ability to get sufficient nutrients such as Vitamin D and calcium.
If you suspect you have one of these disorders, make an appointment with your doctor. Keep a record of your symptoms and food intake to take with you to that appointment. Your doctor may order a test that requires you to consume lactose in order to diagnose a lactose intolerance. To diagnose a dairy allergy, a skin test may be ordered.
Are you concerned about digestive symptoms? Take the safe approach and make an appointment with one of our providers in Greenville or surrounding towns in Hunt County to get checked out. Even if your issue is mild, a diagnosis and nutritional counseling can help you feel and function your best.