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Milk Allergy in Infants

Katlyn Joy |29, September 2014


Many parents get confused about milk allergies and lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is rare in infants and the very young, while milk allergies affect 2 to 3 percent of babies. The inability to digest the sugar in milk is lactose intolerance, while milk allergy is when the body sees milk protein as an invader and tries to fight it off. An allergic reaction ensues, causing digestive symptoms and other symptoms.

Real milk allergies typically occur in the first year of a baby's life. It is more common in children with a family history of allergies, but it is less common in breastfed infants. Most milk allergies will go away after a few years, however.

Milk Allergy Symptoms

The typical onset of symptoms is anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours after ingesting dairy. Severe symptoms occur within a half an hour in most cases. Symptoms can include:

  • Rashes such as hives, swelling and itchy bumps
  • Vomiting
  • Loose stools or diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as an upset stomach
  • Respiratory issues such as wheezing

If children show sensitivity to cow's milk, they will usually also have problems with goat's milk and sheep's milk, and possibly soy milk

Rarely, a milk allergy can result in a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis results in symptoms like difficulty breathing (perhaps even turning blue), weakness, paleness, swelling above the neck, and bloody diarrhea. If any of these occurs, seek emergency medical attention immediately.

If You Suspect a Milk Allergy in Your Baby or Toddler

If you notice any allergy symptoms in your child, don't take action regarding diet until you consult a physician. A doctor will take a thorough family history and medical history, and perform tests. S(he) will most likely take a stool sample, and perform a blood test. A skin test might also be ordered. The skin test will involve injecting a small amount of milk protein under the skin. The area will be observed to check for a wheal, or raised red area that shows an allergic reaction.

If a doctor deems it safe, another test is the oral challenge. In this test, a child will be given milk under medical observation. Then pediatrician will then wait to see if any allergic reactions occur. Another variation is to remove all dairy from a child's diet, and then give some milk and watch if symptoms reappear. This is done at home, but only if previous symptoms were mild or moderate, and the risk of anaphylaxis is not great.

Treatment and Prevention

The main treatment is to remedy any symptoms that occur, such as administering antihistamines or medications to ease stomach upset. Beyond that, once an allergy is identified, treatment includes avoiding any foods or beverages containing the allergen.

To prevent milk allergies, take precautions. If you have a strong family history of allergies, especially if they are to milk, you should strongly consider breastfeeding. Even breastfeeding mothers need to take care to not upset baby's delicate system by eating much dairy themselves. If you have ice cream and you notice your infant is gassy or fussy, limit your diet to foods that don't affect baby's tummy. This can be hard to notice. Try to breastfeed baby exclusively for six months, although the ideal is to continue nursing your baby through the first year. When introducing solid foods, be sure to do it slowly one food at a time. That way if symptoms crop up, you'll be fairly certain what the culprit is.

Most children outgrow such allergies by age five or six. When you do try to reintroduce dairy, you should do it slowly and watch carefully for any signs of intolerance or reaction.

With formula allergies, doctors will often suggest first trying a soy-based formula to see if baby will tolerate it. If that is not successful, you may have to try a hypoallergenic formula. There are two major types: hydrolyzed formulas contain cow's milk proteins that have been broken down into small particles. These are easier to digest. This type of formula usually is able to be broken down by babies with allergies. However, if your infant still has an allergic reaction, you can also try amino-acid based formula, which contains protein in the simplest form.

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