Untangling Milk Allergry from Intolerance

Introduction - distinguishing between milk allergy and intolerance


There is a huge difference between milk allergy and milk intolerance. The latter is more properly known as lactose intolerance. Genuine milk allergy is rare with only about  1% of the population and 5% of children under the age of three are affected. Milk allergy is a rapid and potentially serious response to one or more of the proteins found in milk by your immune system. It can trigger classic allergy symptoms such as a rash, wheezing and itching. This happens when the immune system (IS) that is responsible to keep us clean from infections thinks that proteins found in milk are of those of harmful pathogens such as bacteria. The IS responds by releasing chemicals that end up working against our body (for example under our skin, hence the itching).


On the other hand lactose (or dairy) intolerance is very common, affecting more than half the world population. The symptoms of lactose intolerance tend to come on more slowly, often an hour or more after consuming milk or dairy. Typical symptoms include bloating and stomach cramps.

It's possible to be intolerant to several different foods other than milk. This can make it difficult to identify which foods are causing the problem.

Milk intolerances can also be difficult to tell apart from other digestive disorders that produce similar symptoms, such as inflammatory bowel disease, gastrointestinal obstructions or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Symptoms Comparison

Compare they symptoms of milk allergy vs lactose intolerance.

Milk Allergy Lactose Intolerance


  • hypersensitive immune reaction to food proteins; i.e. the immune system suspects that one (or more) of the milk proteins are a harmful body


  • starts usually from early infancy and more common in children who overgrow it, triggered in later adult life in some who never had it in childhood.


  • usually immediate and affecting more that one part of the body-
    digestion: nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhoea
    skin: swelling eczema, hives
    airways: wheezing, coughing, congestion and a runny nose
    anaphylaxis: most known to happen in peanuts allergy but can be triggered by all sorts of food ingestion. Extremely rare in milk allergy but it EXISTS! Individuals may experience life threatening anaphylactic attacks. Strict avoidance of all traces of the offending food and all its derivatives is the only way to deal with this type of allergy. Emergency adrenaline (epinephrine) should be prescribed and kept within close proximity at all times.


  • insufficient enzymes being produced to break carbohydrates; hence certain food remains in large parts unable to be absorbed by the digestive system


  • starts later in childhood but most common in adults, may be temporarily present in the form of colic in babies


  • symptoms with food intolerance affect the digestive system only: diarrhoea, abdominal bloating, gas, wind, stomach cramps. Some may experience vomiting. The magnitude of the above symptoms are inversely related to the amount of enzyme produced. Some people can produce less than others.