Signs & symptoms of a dairy allergy in children

Updated March 21, 2017

According to the Mayo Clinic, cow's milk is one of the most common food allergens and the leading cause of allergic response in extremely young children. Approximately 2 to 3 per cent of young children are affected by dairy allergies worldwide. While most children eventually outgrow allergies to dairy products by around age 2 or 3, allergies to dairy products are a serious concern for their parents and family members. If you suspect your child may be have a dairy allergy, it's important to understand what causes it and what signs and symptoms to look for.

What Causes Dairy Allergies in Children?

Food allergies occur in children whose immune systems are impaired. Identifying the proteins in dairy product as dangerous, the immune system releases antibodies to combat the intruders. Subsequent exposure to dairy proteins results in the immune system releasing histamines that are largely responsible for a variety of allergic symptoms --- drippy noses, hives, nausea, difficulty breathing and a dangerous condition called anaphylaxis. Dairy products contain two types of protein: casein, which is found in the solid parts of milk, and whey, the liquid remains of milk after it curdles. Children can be allergic to only one type of dairy protein or both.

Signs and Symptoms of Dairy Allergies

Allergic reactions to dairy vary from child to child and can be mild or severe. Most of the time signs and symptoms are noted a few hours after a dairy product is eaten and include hives, vomiting and wheezing. Other signs and symptoms take longer to manifest and can include diarrhoea or loose stool, coughing, stomach cramps, a rash on the skin and a runny nose. It is uncommon for babies to have an allergic response to dairy proteins passed to them through breast milk.

When Dairy Allergies Are Dangerous

Anaphylaxis rarely results from a dairy allergy, but it can occur. This condition is life-threatening because it causes the airways to close, and a child will be unable to breathe. Anaphylaxis is also characterised by dizziness or faintness, a rapid pulse, and precipitous drop in blood pressure that causes shock. If your child has an anaphylactic response, a trip to the emergency room is necessary. The child will be treated with an injection of epinephrine. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, food allergies such as that to dairy account for 35 to 50 per cent of all cases of anaphylaxis.

Dairy Allergy or Food Intolerance?

Dairy allergies and intolerance to dairy products involve very different symptoms. Children who are merely intolerant to dairy products will have digestive difficulties that include bloating, gas and diarrhoea. When a child is intolerant to dairy foods, there is no compromise of the immune system. The only way to make sure that a child is allergic to dairy products is to confirm the allergy through skin or blood testing.

Keeping Children Safe

The best way to prevent an allergic response is to make sure your child does not consume dairy foods. Breastfeeding or the use of hypoallergenic or soy-based formulas is recommended for babies with dairy allergies. But if your child eats solid foods, inspect food labels carefully, because packaged food may still contain either casein or whey even if the label asserts that the food is "nondairy" or "milk-free." Additionally, most children will be unable to tolerate sheep's or goat's milk if they are allergic to cow's milk --- the proteins are too similar. If your child has a severe allergic response to dairy products, have him wear a medical alert bracelet or other form of identification. Talk with your child's paediatrician about obtaining an auto-injectable epinephrine device if he is at risk of anaphylactic shock.

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About the Author

Lisa Sefcik has been writing professionally since 1987. Her subject matter includes pet care, travel, consumer reviews, classical music and entertainment. She's worked as a policy analyst, news reporter and freelance writer/columnist for Cox Publications and numerous national print publications. Sefcik holds a paralegal certification as well as degrees in journalism and piano performance from the University of Texas at Austin.