Milk allergy vs. lactose intolerance: What's the difference?

By Sadie Crouch, RN, BSN Jun 30, 2022 • 5 min

Milk allergy and lactose intolerance are not the same thing. In fact, lactose intolerance and milk allergies actually aren't related at all. If you or someone you know has trouble consuming milk, it is important to understand the difference between an intolerance and an allergy.

What is a milk allergy?

A milk allergy is caused by an immune system malfunction. The malfunction is normally in response to one or both of the main proteins in milk: casein and whey. When someone with a milk allergy consumes milk, the body attempts to fight it with an immune response, which results in the symptoms of an allergic reaction. There are different risk factors for milk allergy, including family history, age (it's more common in young children), history of other allergies and having atopic dermatitis.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is the inability to fully digest lactose, or milk sugar. It is most often caused by producing too little of an enzyme in the small intestine called lactase. Lactase helps to break down lactose so that it can be absorbed into the bloodstream instead of interacting with normal bacteria in the colon, which can result in diarrhea and bloating.

There are several causes for lactase deficiency. While in some rare cases a person may not make lactase at all, the most common causes of a lactase deficiency include an injury or infection in the small intestine, a hereditary condition or the inability to produce enough lactase, as is the case for many premature babies.

What are the symptoms of a milk allergy?

Symptoms of a milk allergy, or any allergy, can be dangerous. Depending on the body's immune response, there can be immediate and delayed symptoms.

Immediate dairy allergy symptoms may include:

  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Itching around lips or mouth
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting

Delayed dairy allergy symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Colic in babies

Most importantly, watch out for signs of anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Some of the symptoms of anaphylaxis include:

  • Increased difficulty breathing
  • Constriction of airways
  • Swollen throat
  • Facial flushing
  • Itching

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

Symptoms of lactose intolerance differ greatly from those of a milk allergy. They normally begin anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours after lactose consumption. These symptoms, while unpleasant, are never life-threatening. They tend to be gastrointestinal in nature and may include:

  • Abdominal cramps or pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Prevention and treatment for a milk allergy vs. lactose intolerance

The only way to prevent an allergic reaction to milk is to avoid milk-containing products. An over-the-counter antihistamine may be able to help with a mild allergic reaction. For an anaphylactic reaction, the treatment is a rescue medication called epinephrine (EpiPen) and immediate medical evaluation.

Prevention and treatment for lactose intolerance depend on the cause and severity of the intolerance. If the lactose intolerance is caused by an underlying injury or infection, treating the issue may help. Otherwise, the most common route of prevention is to consume less lactose. Some over-the-counter lactose intolerance medications, such as Lactaid, contain the lactase enzyme and can help to digest food containing lactose.

What do I do if I think I have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance?

If you have symptoms when consuming milk or lactose, it's always best to let your healthcare provider know. They can evaluate you and advise you on lifestyle changes and medication. For a milk allergy, your provider can schedule appropriate tests and prescribe rescue medications, if needed. In the case of life-threatening symptoms, you should always seek immediate medical attention.

Published June 2022.