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What’s the Difference Between a Milk Allergy and Lactose Intolerant?

As the parent of a young infant, you’ve probably heard other parents talk about milk allergies and lactose intolerance. Although these words are used freely to describe digestive issues in young babies, a true milk allergy or intolerance to lactose is not as common as it seems. In fact, less than 5 percent of babies will be diagnosed with a milk allergy and even fewer will be diagnosed with an intolerance to lactose.

How Being Allergic to Milk and Having a Lactose Intolerance Differ

The terms – milk allergy and lactose intolerance – are commonly confused with each other, but these two conditions are NOT the same. A milk allergy will provoke an immune response, while an intolerance to lactose will only affect the digestive system. An infant who is allergic to milk proteins can exhibit anaphylactic symptoms, which if not treated, can be life threatening. Although the symptoms of a lactose intolerance can be painful, they do not result in life threatening symptoms.

It’s very rare for a child under the age of 2 to be lactose intolerant, however, most milk allergies develop within the first 1 to 3 months of birth. According to several studies, most babies will outgrow a milk allergy by their first birthday.

Signs and Symptoms of a Milk Allergy

Infants can have a reaction to milk minutes, hours or even days after consuming a milk based formula or being exposed to dairy in breast milk. In most cases, a milk allergy will not make itself known for days or even weeks after dairy has been consumed. Some of the more common symptoms of an immediate reaction to milk, include:

  • Crying
  • Swelling of the lips and mouth
  • Watery, swollen eyes
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Hives or rash on the skin
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Wheezing and trouble breathing


Some of the more common symptoms of a delayed reaction to milk, include:


  • Gagging or vomiting
  • Fussiness or colic
  • Rashes like eczema
  • Loose stool containing blood
  • No desire to eat

Signs and Symptoms of a Lactose Intolerance 

As mentioned above, lactose intolerance is a digestive issue. When the body is not producing enough enzyme lactate, which is needed to break down lactose, lactose (in its large form) passes through the large intestine and ferments into acids and gases. The symptoms of a lactose intolerance can range from mild to severe and include:

  • Prolonged bouts of fussiness or irritability
  • Loose, watery bowel movements
  • Excessive gas
  • Vomiting or excessive spit up
  • Belly bloating

Get Professional Medical Help

If you believe your baby may be experiencing a milk allergy or is intolerant to lactose, do not wait to speak to her pediatrician. A simple blood test or breath test can be given to determine whether or not your child is suffering from either of these.

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