Guide to Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
December 07, 2018

Don’t confuse lactose intolerance symptoms with dairy allergy symptoms; these conditions are different. Learn how to avoid lactose intolerance symptoms.

If you or someone you know experiences digestive upset and even pain after drinking milk or eating dairy products, you might assume these are dairy allergy symptoms — but you’d be wrong.

A milk allergy is an immune system disorder with signs and symptoms that may be mild or so severe they are life-threatening, the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) explains. Dairy allergy symptoms can include wheezing, hives, vomiting and other digestive problems.

While lactose intolerance can be painful and annoying, it doesn’t produce a potentially life-threatening reaction, as can occur with a severe allergic reaction to milk.

What’s more, dairy allergy symptoms most often appear in the first year of life, while lactose intolerance symptoms most often become obvious later, according to the NIDDK.


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What is lactose intolerance, exactly?

You may ask what is lactose intolerance if it can make you feel sick but it’s not due to an allergic hypersensitivity to milk. Instead of being an allergy, lactose intolerance is a condition that starts as lactose malabsorption, which means the small intestine cannot digest or break down a specific sugar found in milk products — lactose.

However, not every person who has some lactose malabsorption experiences digestive symptoms after they consume food or drinks containing milk. Only people who do have symptoms are lactose intolerant.

Lactose intolerance symptoms

Having lactose intolerance doesn’t mean a person can never taste anything with a milk product in it. In fact, many people can consume some amounts of lactose without having symptoms — but others react to small amounts.

Some people with lactose intolerance have difficulty digesting fresh milk but can eat certain dairy products such as cheese or yogurt without discomfort. That’s because those foods are fermented in a way that breaks down much of the lactose in milk, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Bottom line: Different people who have lactose intolerance can often consume different amounts of milk products before feeling discomfort. When symptoms do develop, they occur within a few hours of eating or drinking dairy products.

Common lactose intolerance symptoms:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Gas
  • Rumbling and “growling” in your stomach
  • Vomiting

Diagnosing and treating lactose intolerance symptoms

About 30 to 50 million Americans have lactose intolerance to some degree, according to the NIDDK. While anyone of any ethnic group can have the condition, it is more common in people of African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American ethnicity, the American Academy of Family Physicians explains.

In addition, injury to the small intestine from surgery, infections, or conditions such as celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, and radiation therapies can sometimes result in lactose intolerance. But the condition may improve over time if due to these causes.

Also, premature babies may not make enough lactase for a short time after birth and be unable to tolerate milk. Affected infants must be given a lactose-free infant formula, or they develop severe dehydration and weight loss. However, the small intestine usually begins to digest lactose as the baby gets older.

If you or your child has any symptoms of lactose intolerance, talk to your doctor. To make a diagnosis of lactose intolerance, your doctor may ask you to stop eating and drinking milk and milk products for a period to see if your symptoms disappear.

A physical exam will check for bloating and tenderness. Undigested lactose causes higher than normal levels of hydrogen in the breath of people with lactose intolerance. So, your doctor may order a hydrogen breath test that’s performed after you down a lactose-containing drink.

If you are lactose intolerant, depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be able to consume small amounts of milk products, especially when eaten with other foods.

You’ll need to read labels thoroughly to check for added milk products. Look for lactose-free and, if you can tolerate them, lactose-reduced foods. Talk to your doctor about taking lactase tablets or drops that contain the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose. If you take lactase before you eat or drink milk products, you may be able to tolerate these foods without having lactose intolerance symptoms.


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March 26, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN