Milk can be a good source of calcium for children and their growing bones, but dairy products are also a common cause of food allergies.
“Among children younger than 3 years old, 2-3 percent are allergic to milk,” said Lisa A. Jones RN, BSN, AE-C, Asthma and EZ Breathing Program Coordinator at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Experts used to believe that most would outgrow the allergy by age 3, but recent research has shown the opposite is true. In one study, less than 20 percent of children outgrew their allergy by age 4, although about 80 percent of them outgrew it before they were 16.”
Your children may be allergic to milk products if they experience the following symptoms shortly after consuming them:
- Stomach upset
- Blood stools, especially among infants
- Anaphylaxis (a rare, potentially life-threatening reaction that can restrict breathing and send the body into shock)
Children who are lactose intolerance do not have a milk allergy. With a milk or dairy allergy, the immune system reacts as if these products are dangerous to their body. A child who is lactose-intolerant cannot digest milk sugars (called lactose), due to a deficiency of the enzyme lactase. This enzyme metabolizes lactose. Symptoms of lactose-intolerance may include gas, diarrhea or abdominal cramps.
“Fortunately, milk is among eight allergens for which there are federal labeling requirements,” added Jones. “According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, manufacturers of packaged food products sold in the U.S. must state if a product contains milk as an ingredient.”
Some food companies also note if their products “may contain traces of milk” or are manufactured in facilities that also process milk. If you suspect that your child has a milk allergy, take the following steps:
- Visit an allergist. An allergist will take a detailed history and perform allergy tests that detect the presence of immunoglobulin E antibodies. When exposed to allergens, the body develops these antibodies, which trigger the release of chemicals that cause allergic reactions.
- Avoid milk and milk products. In addition to cow’s milk, your child may be allergic to milk from other animals like goats and sheep.
- Watch for milk proteins. When you read labels, look out for casein and whey. These are milk proteins that are added to a number of foods, such as dairy products, body-building and energy drinks, canned tuna, meats and sausage. Milk protein may even be found in some chewing gum.
- Keep epinephrine on hand. If your child has an allergic reaction, epinephrine is the best way to quickly reverse the symptoms. Your child’s allergist may advise you to carry an auto-injector containing epinephrine (a form of adrenaline) to treat anaphylactic shock. Be sure you and your child (if they are old enough) know how to use it. Always call 911 for emergency help when using epinephrine.
- Carry antihistamines with you. While antihistamines should never be used as a replacement for epinephrine, they can ease allergy symptoms in some children. It is a good idea to carry an over-the-counter antihistamine with you to use in addition to the epinephrine.
- Inform other people. Teachers and caregivers should know what symptoms to watch for and how to treat them.
Even though dairy products seem to be everywhere, your child can enjoy a healthy diet without cheese and milk.
- Make substitutions. When a recipe calls for milk, use juice, soy or rice milk or even water instead. If you have an infant, talk with your pediatrician about the best formula to use.
- Find alternate sources of calcium. Many other foods like juices, cereals and soy beverages are enriched with calcium.
- Try supplements. Your child’s doctor may recommend calcium and Vitamin D supplements.
- Buy vegan products. These are made without animal products like milk or eggs. Be aware, however, that some soy cheeses may contain milk protein even though they are labeled “milk-free.”
- Enjoy soy- or rice-based desserts. Puddings, sorbets and frozen desserts made with these ingredients can be delicious. Baked goods made with milk substitutes can also be tasty – and sometimes even better than those made with milk. Use dairy-free spreads.
- Talk to restaurant staff. Be sure to inform your waiter or waitress about your child’s allergy. Ask detailed questions about items on the menu. When eating at the homes of friends or family, make sure they are aware of your child’s allergy.
Your child can enjoy eating despite their milk allergy. In fact, many people think that certain milk substitutes – such as vanilla soy milk – are better tasting than cow’s milk. Experiment with different non-dairy foods and discover a new world of good eating.