Milk Allergies

By:    Published: September 27, 2012

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A milk allergy may sound like a simple allergy to deal with – all you have to do is avoid milk, right? Well, if only it were that simple. Milk is used as an ingredient in all dairy products and even in foods that you may not think of like candies, baked goods and processed meats. Those foods also must be avoided in order to prevent an allergic reaction. It may seem impossible for some people to eliminate all of these foods from their diet, but it’s essential if you suffer from milk allergies.

Causes

A milk allergy, like all foods allergies, is an immune system response to the proteins in milk. The immune system mistakenly identifies the milk proteins as something harmful and begins to produce antibodies known as immunoglobulin E to attack them. Other chemicals are also produced, such as histamine, which causes many of the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

The two proteins that are responsible for the reaction are:

  • Whey: This protein is found in the liquid part of the milk after it has curdled.
  • Caesin: This protein is found in the solid part of the milk after it has curdled.

It is possible to be allergic to both proteins or only one of these proteins. People who are allergic to cow’s milk may also be allergic to the milk of cows, goats, sheep and buffalo.

Symptoms

The symptoms of a milk allergy can be mild or severe and are usually experienced a few minutes to a few hours after coming into contact with milk or milk products. Those symptoms include:

  • Hives
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea or cramps
  • Watery eyes
  • A runny nose
  • Itchy skin or a rash around the mouth

The most severe reaction is anaphylaxis, which causes the airways to constrict and makes it difficult to breathe. Anaphylaxis can be life-threatening and requires a trip to the emergency room as well as a treatment in the form of an epinephrine shot. The symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Flushing of the skin
  • A sharp drop in blood pressure
  • Tightening of the chest
  • Difficulty swallowing

If anaphylaxis is a common reaction when consuming milk or milk products, it’s best to see a doctor for treatment.

Diagnosis

In order to determine whether or not you truly have a milk allergy, the doctor will perform any of these three tests:

  • Blood test: This will measure the amount of immunoglobulin E in your bloodstream, but this test is not always accurate.
  • Skin test: The doctor will prick either your back or forearm with needles that contain trace amounts of milk proteins. If your skin develops a rash, a raised bump or other reaction, it’s likely you have an allergy to milk. This test is not always accurate either in diagnosing a milk allergy.
  • Elimination diet: The doctor may ask you to cut milk and milk products out of your diet for a few weeks and then slowly add them back in to see if this causes a reaction.

It is also possible to have an allergy to cow’s milk as well as soy, so ask your doctor to test you for a soy allergy as well.

In some cases, a person may not even have an allergy at all, but a lactose intolerance, which is often mistaken for a milk allergy. The difference is that lactose intolerance is a lack of enzymes in the stomach that can break down the sugars in milk whereas a milk allergy is an immune system response. Certain foods that are made with small amounts of milk may also be tolerated with lactose intolerance, but not with a milk allergy.

Treatment

If you are diagnosed with a milk allergy, it’s important to know how to treat yourself, should a reaction occur. For minor reactions, an antihistamine should be sufficient at reducing your symptoms and reliving any discomfort. For more severe reactions, such as anaphylaxis, you will need an epinephrine shot through an auto-injector like an EpiPen or a TwinJect. It’s important to have access to antihistamines and epinephrine shots with you at all times in case of an emergency.

Lifestyle Changes

In order to prevent future allergic reactions, you’ll have to make some lifestyle changes, such as eliminating certain foods from your diet. Here’s a list of some of the foods that you should avoid:

  • Butter
  • Yogurt
  • Ice cream
  • Cheese and products that contain cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Pudding
  • Half-and-half
  • Protein powders
  • Artificial butters or cheeses
  • Chocolate, nougat and caramel

Giving up ice cream and chocolate can be tough for someone with a sweet tooth, but thankfully there are alternatives, such as ice cream made with rice or soy milk. In fact, many milk products have soy or rice counterparts since vegans do not consume milk as part of their animal-free diet. Many grocery stores now contain vegan options, which are a great choice for people who have a milk allergy.

Aside from eating vegan alternatives, here are some other tips to follow:

  • Don’t be afraid to communicate any concerns with restaurant servers. Ask about foods that are milk-free and if items made with milk are exposed to the same utensils and surfaces as milk-free foods.
  • If your child is allergic to milk, consult with your child’s school cafeteria. Make the teachers and staff aware that your child has an allergy and ensure that they are prepared in case of an emergency.
  • Check all food labels for whey, caesin and any ingredient that begins with prefix “lact.”

Changing your diet may seem like a daunting task, but it’s necessary to keep you healthy in the long-run. Although having a milk allergy may seem limiting, you can still enjoy the foods that you like; they’ll just contain soy or rice instead of milk.

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