Milk allergies are caused as a direct result of a reaction to one or several of the proteins which are present in cow’s milk. If you look at a bottle of milk which has become sour, it is easy to spot white globules which float within the watery liquid. These white droplets are known as curd and represent 80% of the milks protein some of which are caseins (pronounced: Kay-seenz). The whey (pronounced: way) completes the other 20%. People who develop an allergic reaction to milk may be sensitive to just one part of the milk but in some cases sufferers will form a reaction to both.
The symptoms develop when dairy foods are consumed. The body misinterprets the milk proteins as being dangerous and tries to flush them away by producing antibodies to fight off the offending invaders. These antibodies known as immunoglobin E (IgE) emit a surge of chemicals into the body, some of which are known as histamines (pronounced: hiss-tuh-meens).
This means that whenever people with milk allergies ingest a milk product, their immune systems will automatically form an army of chemicals to attack the unwanted invaders in a bid to protect the body from harm. Whilst these antibodies are sent as an aid to see off the offending substances, they also induce a series of side effects such as nausea, headache, wheezy chest, abdominal pains and itchy skin.
Milk allergies are very similar to any other hyposensitive reaction. The sufferer usually experiences symptoms within can last anything from a few minutes to several hours and may experience discomfort in the following body systems:
The respiratory tract:
Tell-tale signs include itchy and watery eyes. There may also be long bouts of sneezing and a runny nose along with coughing and wheezing.
The gastrointestinal tract:
Belly cramps may fluctuate from mild to severe and diarrhea may be present along with feelings of nausea or vomiting.
Itchy irritated skin may form red spots commonly known as hives. Eczema may also flare up and some sufferers witness a swelling and reddish tone around the mouth.
The majority of sufferers will experience some of the above reactions but in cases of severity, anaphylaxis may occur. This is an allergic reaction in its extreme and will result in swelling within the mouth which travels down the throat and into the airways which lead to the lungs. As a result, the sufferer may experience severe difficulty in breathing. In some instances, the blood pressures drops which can also trigger dizziness or fainting and lead to shock.
It is often difficult to determine the difference between someone who is lactose intolerant and someone with dairy allergies as they both induce similar symptoms. However, milk allergies will directly affect the immune system whereas a person who is lactose intolerant will develop these symptoms due to the body being unable to produce enough enzymes to break down milk sugars into a form which can be easily absorbed and digested.
Will my doctor be able to detect if I have a milk allergy?
Your GP is likely to refer you to a specialist who will undertake tests to ascertain if you have an allergic reaction. You are likely to be asked how often the symptoms occur and the length of time it takes for a reaction to take place. Your family history may also be explored to see if asthma or eczema is prevalent amongst siblings.
The allergy specialist may then perform a small skin test where small quantities of milk proteins are pricked onto the skin. If tiny, raised spots develop, it is evident that milk is the contributor to hypersensitivity.
If you suspect that you have a milk allergy and your doctor has referred you to a specialist, you may be advised to stop taking anti-histamines for two to three days prior to the specialist’s appointment as they are likely to interfere with the results. Your doctor may also look into any medications you are taking to see if they may affect the results. Even simple over the counter cold remedies and some antidepressants could weaken the results.
Some GP’s will test for dairy allergies by taking a blood sample. This is sent to a laboratory where it is mixed with the suspected allergen and checked to see if the sufferer produces IgE antibodies.
These tests are a surefire way to diagnose milk allergies. For sufferers who develop a slower allergic reaction, doctors take a different approach to testing for hypersensitivity The patient is asked to abstain from consuming any product which contains milk for a set period of time. After several weeks, milk products are re-introduced back into the diet and closely monitored. If the symptoms reoccur, it is a likely sign that the patient has a milk allergy.
Which treatment methods are available?
Any foods containing milk or milk products have to be completely eliminated from the diet. This means that people with dairy allergies need to pay particular attention to the ingredients listed on food labels to ensure that milk products are recognized under their many different titles. A dietician can help with this and will also help devise an eating plan which ensures that high levels of nutrients are still maintained.
In severe cases, doctors may insist that patients with milk allergies carry a shot of epinephrine with them in case of emergencies. Epinephrine fits easily into a handbag or coat pocket and provides the sufferer with the reassurance that help is readily available if they should encounter a reaction.
It is easy to make mistakes when completely eliminating milk from the diet as products which may appear to be devoid of dairy may be listed under an obscure name. This will trigger swelling inside the mouth, pains in the chest and/or labored breathing. By carrying a shot of epinephrine, sufferers can stabilize their reaction until medical help arrives. Whenever epinephrine is used, it is important to call 999 and request emergency help.
People with a severe reaction to milk allergies should make it a daily routine to check that they always have epinephrine with them before they leave the house. Some people also carry a box of over-the-counter antihistamines to help ward off the symptoms of dairy allergies. However, antihistamines should not be used as a substitute for epinephrine.
Nearly 35% of anaphylactic reactions spur a second wave of symptoms several hours after the first attack. Therefore, a period of observation may be required to ensure that the there is no likelihood of a second attack. Patients may not be required to stay in hospital overnight but can be expected to be monitored for up to eight hours.
Living with milk allergies
Although it is challenging to completely eliminate all forms of milk from the diet, after some practice, it becomes easier to recognize foods which are safe and those which must be avoided. Protein can still be obtained from calcium rich cereals, juices, soy beverages and rice. However, do not take it for granted that foods which are calcium enriched are dairy free as many are laden with milk derivatives. Always check and double check the labels on any food products which are new or unfamiliar. Even products which seem highly unlikely to obtain milk products may have them hidden.
In the United States, it is now a legal requirement that manufacturers highlight foods in their products which may cause dairy allergies or other hypersensitive reactions. Warnings such as “contains milk ingredients” or “this product has been processed in a facility that also processes milk products” takes the Russian roulette out of purchasing dairy free. This in turn, makes shopping a more pleasant and easier experience.
The internet makes it easy to compile a list of ‘code words’ for the many masked names that dairy products can hide under. Some to look out for include: Casein, calcium casein, casein hydrolysate, magenesium casein, potassium casein, rennet casein, sodium casein. butter, butter flavoring, butter fat, lactalbumin, lactoalbumin phosphate, lactaglobulin, lactose.
Vegan food products are completely animal free which means that even eggs are eliminated. Health stores contain an enormous range of vegan foods but it is worth noting that some soy cheeses contain milk proteins even though the label may promote the item as being ‘dairy free’.
Avoiding dairy does not mean saying goodbye to your favourite sweet treats. There are many rice or soy based desserts which taste equally as good as their milk counterparts. Baking can also be enjoyed simply by replacing milk with dairy free substitutes.
Takeaways do not have to be taken away but watch out for some batters which may have been made using milk products. Some people still experience dairy allergies even when the batter is dairy free as the oil used to cook the product may have also been used to fry foods which contained milk products.
Manufacturers and caterers are usually sympathetic to people with dairy allergies. They will do their best to ensure that meals are prepared or labeled so as customers are aware of the ingredients. If you are eating out, do not be afraid to address the waiting staff with any questions or doubts in relation to dishes which are listed on the menu. If dining with friends, it may be worth asking which dishes are likely to be served so as you can advise on substitutes or alternatives. This ensures that your dining experience does not cause you embarrassment or create any upheaval and you can enjoy your evening as well as everyone else.
Dairy allergies do not mean an end to everything that used to be enjoyed. In fact, many dairy substitutes taste even better than the real thing. When you eliminate milk from the diet you open up a whole new world of taste experiences which many miss out on. Milk allergies pave the way for trying out many new foods and are an exciting way to introduce your tastebuds to a new world of tasty alternatives which will make smiling the second thing that you do with your lips.