What is a milk allergy and what causes it?
A milk allergy is a type of food allergy that occurs when the immune system mistakenly identifies the proteins in milk as harmful invaders and produces antibodies to fight them. These antibodies trigger inflammation and other allergic reactions in the body. The most common proteins that cause a milk allergy are casein and whey, which are found in cow’s milk and other dairy products.
A milk allergy can develop at any age, but it is more common in children than in adults. About 2% of adults in the US are allergic to milk. The exact cause of a milk allergy is unknown, but it may be influenced by genetic and environmental factors. Some people may outgrow their milk allergy over time, while others may have it for life.
What are the symptoms of a milk allergy and how severe are they?
The symptoms of a milk allergy can vary from person to person and depend on the amount and type of milk or dairy product consumed. They can also range from mild to severe, and may occur within minutes or hours of exposure. Some of the common symptoms of a milk allergy are:
- Hives, rash, itching, or swelling of the skin
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea
- Runny nose, sneezing, coughing, or wheezing
- Itchy or watery eyes, or redness of the eyes
- Tingling or swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
In some cases, a milk allergy can cause a severe and life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, which can affect the breathing, circulation, and blood pressure. Anaphylaxis can cause symptoms such as:
- Chest tightness, difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath
- Dizziness, fainting, or loss of consciousness
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat, or low blood pressure
- Shock, or organ failure
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment with an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) and a call to 911. If left untreated, anaphylaxis can be fatal.
How can a milk allergy be diagnosed and confirmed?
If you suspect that you or your child have a milk allergy, you should consult a healthcare provider as soon as possible. They may refer you to an allergist, who is a specialist in diagnosing and treating allergies. The allergist will ask you about your medical history, your symptoms, and your exposure to milk or dairy products. They will also perform a physical examination and some tests to confirm your diagnosis. The tests may include:
- A skin prick test, which involves applying a small amount of milk protein to the skin and observing for any signs of an allergic reaction, such as a raised bump or redness.
- A blood test, which measures the level of antibodies that your immune system produces in response to milk proteins. A high level of antibodies indicates a milk allergy.
- A component blood test, which identifies the specific protein that triggers your milk allergy, such as casein or whey.
- An oral food challenge, which involves giving you a small amount of milk or milk protein under the supervision of a doctor and monitoring your reactions. This test is usually done after the other tests to confirm your diagnosis and determine your tolerance level.
How can a milk allergy be managed and treated?
The best way to prevent and treat a milk allergy is to avoid milk and dairy products completely. This means reading the labels of all the foods and drinks that you buy or consume, and checking for any ingredients that contain milk or milk derivatives, such as:
- Butter, cheese, cream, yogurt, ice cream, or sour cream
- Milk solids, milk powder, milk fat, or nonfat milk
- Casein, whey, lactose, or lactalbumin
- Curds, ghee, or rennet
You should also be aware of the foods and products that may contain hidden sources of milk, such as:
- Baked goods, such as bread, cakes, cookies, or pastries
- Processed foods, such as soups, sauces, dressings, or snacks
- Candies, chocolates, or desserts
- Cereals, granola bars, or protein bars
- Meats, such as sausages, hot dogs, or deli meats
- Medications, vitamins, or supplements
- Cosmetics, lotions, or shampoos
If you have a severe milk allergy, you should always carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you and know how to use it in case of an anaphylactic reaction. You should also wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace that informs others of your condition and instructs them on what to do in an emergency.
In addition to avoiding milk and dairy products, you should also follow a balanced and nutritious diet that provides you with enough calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients that are essential for your health. You can get these nutrients from other sources, such as:
- Plant-based milks, such as soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, or oat milk
- Calcium-fortified foods and drinks, such as orange juice, cereals, or breads
- Leafy green vegetables, such as kale, spinach, or broccoli
- Beans, nuts, seeds, or tofu
- Fish, such as salmon, sardines, or mackerel
- Eggs, or egg substitutes
You may also consult your doctor or a dietitian for advice on how to plan your meals and supplements according to your needs and preferences.
A milk allergy is a serious condition that can cause various symptoms and complications. It is important to recognize the signs of a milk allergy, get a proper diagnosis, and avoid milk and dairy products. By doing so, you can prevent allergic reactions and enjoy a healthy and happy life.