Milk Allergy Part 1 – Defintion and Symptoms

by Naveen Agarwal

in Ask The Expert,Food Allergy

This is part 1 of a series by guest writer Lauren Morgan, a dietetic intern at the University of Maryland and blogger at The Blue Plate Special. Having grown up with food allergies, and because of her training as a dietitian, she has a strong interest and technical knowledge of this topic. Feel free to leave a question or comment for follow up!

While many people go through their lives never giving a second thought to drinking milk, that is not how it goes for kids and parents of kids with milk allergy.  Milk is a fundamental part of the diet, especially for many young children.  There are certainly ways to have a healthy diet and healthy child while avoiding milk, but for parents of young children just developing these allergies it can be a rough road.  Let’s address the basics of the milk allergy.

What is milk allergy?

Milk allergy is one of the most common food allergies seen in children these days! Here are a few basic facts to know about milk allergy:

  • It involves an allergic reaction which is a reaction of the immune system to the protein present in cow’s milk.
  • The immune system identifies the protein in milk as harmful and begins to fight it by producing immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to attack the protein.
  • The IgE antibodies then trigger a cascade of responses in the body to fight off the allergen; this is what leads to the body’s response of vomiting, swelling, etc.
  • There are mild to severe reactions involved in a milk allergy.
  • One thing to remember about food allergies is that repeated exposure can lead to more severe reactions.  The first exposure, known as sensitization, begins the production of these antibodies. So the next time the body sees the protein the antibodies are there to fight it off.  This can happen more intensely over time.

It is important to note here that many people mistake a milk intolerance for a true milk allergy.  A true milk allergy involves a reaction of the immune system where as a milk intolerance will often involve digestive problems such as bloating, and/or gas after drinking milk or eating milk-containing products.  It is important to know the difference because milk allergy is a very serious issue that can be life-threatening. Also you do not want to deprive your child of milk and milk products if their digestion can be helped with lactase enzymes or other products. Milk, after all, is a good source of calcium and vitamin D.

Check out a good introduction to general allergic reactions on MedlinePlus and milk allergy on Mayo Clinic and  and HERE for more information on the process behind the milk allergy reaction.  If you are interested in how things work in the body then this will fascinate you!

How can you recognize an allergic reaction to milk in your child?

Allergic reactions happen within minutes to several hours after consumption of the food, or drink in this case.
You could see these symptoms if your child is having an allergic reaction:

  • Wheezing
  • Itchy eyes
  • Runny nose, sneezing
  • Hives
  • Vomiting
  • A more severe reaction called anaphylaxis, which is a systemic reaction in the body that can be life-threatening and needs emergency medical attention immediately

Symptoms that take more time to develop

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Loose stools which may contain blood
  • Itchy skin rash that is often around the mouth
  • Colic in babies

Here is a good description of signs and symptoms of food allergy by American Academy of Pediatricians

How many kids are affected? What is the age range of affected kids and how early can I find out if my child has milk allergy?

According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network approximately 2.5% of children younger than 3 years of age are allergic to milk. If an allergy to milk is going to develop, it almost always develops in an infant’s first year of life.  The good news with milk allergies is that most children (it’s estimated 80-90%) will outgrow the milk allergy in their first few years of life.

That’s a lot to take in about milk allergies, so digest it, and I will be back to talk about the “so what do we do?” side of it very soon!

Photo Source: Clearly Ambiguous on Flickr


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