The Difference Between Lactose Intolerance and A Dairy Allergy

Food-related issues are a hot topic. If you don’t have an adverse reaction to  food, you probably know someone who does. Along with peanuts, shellfish, and wheat, one food group that can cause problems is dairy. Adverse reactions to dairy fall into one of two categories – intolerance or allergies. Despite what you might think, they’re not the same thing. Here’s how to tell them apart and determine which one you have.

What is Lactose Intolerance?

If you have a lactose intolerance your body lacks an enzyme called lactase that is needed to break down and digest dairy products. Lactase specifically breaks down a sugar called lactose, which is traditionally found in dairy products and milk. Symptoms of lactose intolerance, including cramps, gas, diarrhea, and bloating, can be uncomfortable. However, they are not life-threatening.

What is a Dairy Allergy?

The key difference between food intolerance and an allergy is that an intolerance only affects the digestive system, while an allergy affects the immune system. Therefore, a dairy allergy presents more severe symptoms that can be life-threatening. If you have a food allergy, your immune system overreacts to a specific type of food. Specifically, it reacts to a protein in the food — the symptoms associated with an allergy range from minor annoyances to frightening, life-threatening reactions. When you eat a dairy product that you’re allergic to, you might experience mild symptoms like itching, hives, or rashes to more severe symptoms like breathing problems and even loss of consciousness. In the most severe cases, a food allergy can cause anaphylactic shock.

Who’s at Risk?

A lactose intolerance is more common in adults. In fact, WebMD notes that by age 20, approximately 30 million Americans have trouble digesting lactose. Ethnicity also plays a role. People of Native American, African, Asian, and southern European descent are more likely to develop a dairy intolerance than people of western European or northern European heritage.

In the case of a food allergy, family history influences the likelihood of you developing an allergy. If family members have hives, eczema, asthma, or allergies to any substance, including those not related to food, you are at a higher risk of developing a food allergy. It’s also important to note that while lactose intolerance is more common in adults, an allergy can develop at any age.

How are the Two Conditions Diagnosed and Treated?

When you visit the best allergist in Las Vegas, your doctor will review your symptoms. This gives a good indication as to whether you suffer from an intolerance or an allergy. If your doctor determines that you have a lactose intolerance, you’ll be told to alter your diet to avoid consuming troublesome foods. This usually entails eliminating dairy entirely or replacing it with non-dairy alternatives like lactose-free ice cream and milk.

If your doctor suspects a food allergy, you may get a skin test or a blood test. For a severe allergy, you might be given a medication called epinephrine, which can prevent a life-threatening allergic reaction. If your allergies are mild, you’ll be told to adjust your diet. Your doctor might also recommend over-the-counter allergy medications to control irritating symptoms.

When to Call a Doctor

If you suspect that you have a lactose intolerance, simply eliminating milk and dairy products from your diet is usually sufficient. However, if you suspect an allergy, it is essential to get a professional medical evaluation. If you have symptoms of a life-threatening reaction, such as a rapid pulse rate, dizziness, trouble breathing or a drop in blood pressure, seek emergency care immediately.

A dairy intolerance or allergy can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. But you don’t have to live with it! Visiting Dr. Tottori, a specialist in Las Vegas allergies, is a good start. Keeping track of your symptoms and learning to adjust your diet can help you live a healthy life without dairy products.