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How to tell if you're Lactose Intolerant or have a Dairy Allergy

Updated on June 4, 2012
JenPaxton profile image

Coffee Goddess by day, renegade writer by night. Jen lives in the Midwest and holds a BA in Creative Writing. She blogs in her spare time.

The Worst Day of my Life

About two years ago now, maybe a little bit longer, I discovered something about myself. Something horrible. Something I absolutely hate and detest. Something I can't change about myself no matter how much I try or how much I want it to be different.

I am lactose intolerant.

How is this just now coming up? How did I get this way? What went wrong? And was it really lactose intolerance? Why did a person who loved cheese and ice cream so much suddenly become incapable of eating it without drastic consequences?

Every 20-25 years, your body changes

I heard it, I just didn't think it could be so accurate. It wasn't that long after my 25th birthday that I started getting serious symptoms.

Let me rephrase that. I had always wondered about myself and my ability to deal with dairy products, even at a young age, because there were some weird little... I'll call them quirks ... I had regarding anything made out of cow's milk. I could open a bottle of milk fresh from the store and smell it, and it would always smell rotten. As a child, my father and his side of the family would have to force me to drink milk because I hated the taste - and they did force me, for many years. I wasn't allowed to leave my father's table after dinner without drinking my milk. My friends made fun of me for it because my dad would make them do it, too. I constantly felt bloated, and gassy, but since I always had cheese or something dairy ("because dairy is good for you, it's one of the five food groups") with every meal, I didn't put it together, really. I craved dairy.

But I never really had an "attack" of sorts. Not until a little while after I turned 25. A few friends, my mother and I, all went out to eat at a local fast-food place that is known for their delicious, cheesey, fatty burgers, and their thick, amazing milkshakes.

The meal was fantastic. The burger was saturated in cheesey goodness. The milkshake was a Reece's Peanut Butter Cup shake. Heaven in a glass. And about five times more than I should've drank, but I enjoyed it so much I got every last bit of it out of the bottom of the glass.

And a half an hour later, I was in hell.

Symptoms of a Milk Allergy

Same As Lactose Intolerance:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal discomfort, bloating, cramps
  • Gas (flatulence)
  • Constipation

Specific to Milk Allergy:

  • Hives or Skin Rash
  • Wheezing
  • Runny Nose

Symptoms of Lactose Intolarance

Common:

  • Gas (Flatulence)
  • Abdominal discomfort (mild pain)
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation (and if you don't think you can have both diarrhea and constipation at the same time, then you've never had a good lactose intolerance attack)

Slightly less common but still annoying:

  • Abdominal pain, noises, bloating, cramping
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

But how do you tell the difference?

Obviously, with either one, you can have some of the same symptoms, so it can be difficult to tell which is which.

Regardless, you need to stop eating any dairy products (see list below) for several days (sometimes it takes me a week to get everything out of my system and stop having issues). Then, start adding things back in. If you have a problem when you add something back in, you're at least lactose intolerant. Some people just get similar symptoms from other sources (it happens, I mean those are pretty general digestive symptoms there), so it's a first step to make sure that it's the dairy products and not something else.

Still having problems? Here's how to tell which it is, after laying off the dairy again: there is such a thing as lactose-free dairy milk and cheese. Switch to that. The most prevalent product in many grocery stores today is Lactaid - real dairy milk without lactose. If you're still experiencing issues, consult your doctor about having a milk allergy, and see if you and your doctor can figure out a good nutritional plan for you. Your doctor can also give you lactose-free milk and test you right there in the office as well to make sure that's it.

Good to Know...

"The severity of the symptoms of lactose intolerance varies greatly from person to person. One reason for this variability is that people have different amounts of lactose in their diet; the more lactose in the diet, the more likely and severe the symptoms. Another reason for the variability is that people have differing severities of lactase deficiency, that is, they may have mild, moderate, or severe reduction in the amounts of lactase in their intestines. Thus, small amounts of lactose will cause major symptoms in severely lactase deficient people but only mild or no symptoms in mildly lactase deficient people. Finally, people may have different responses to the same amount of lactose reaching the colon. Whereas some may have mild or no symptoms, others may have moderate symptoms. The reason for this is not clear but may relate to differences in their intestinal bacteria."

- http://www.medicinenet.com/lactose_intolerance

I'm Lactose Intolerant. My Life Is Over.

Especially if you're a cheese-lover like I was, it can be especially difficult to deal with suddenly becoming Lactose Intolerant. It took me a lot of very painful, bloated, trial and error, and I still sometimes get it wrong.

Still wondering how I got it? There are some theories that suggest if you have a lactose intolerant relative, you're more likely to get it. I'm not sure of that, though, but I do know that for a few years - not his entire life, my dad experienced some form of lactose intolerance - he couldn't drink any dairy or eat any ice cream or cheese, and it just randomly cropped up in his 20's or 30's, and then just as randomly disappeared.

Your body goes through cycles, remember? Sometimes new allergies can crop up, and old ones can disappear. Why? Your body's systems work differently in each "cycle" or stage. Lactose intolerance is because your body doesn't produce enough LactASE, the enzyme that breaks down lactose inside your stomach and intestines

It can also be caused (according to medicinenet.com) a disease such as Celiac's that causes damage to your intestinal lining, thus keeping you from producing enough lactase.

But there are many products out there these days that make it at least a little bit easier. Finding the one you like best is going to be the hardest part.

A Few Options:

Milk for coffee or cereal:

  • Silk brand Soy Milk (comes in all kinds of flavors, and in light varieties for those watching their figures) - requires a little time to get used to if you're not used to soy.
  • Almond Milk
  • Coconut Milk
  • Lactaid

Cheeses:

Cheeses are a little more tricky, and I will admit that I have yet to figure them out entirely. But, here's my theory. If you're already used to soy MILK, go for soy cheese. It's more expensive and harder to find, though, so I don't really bother with it - that, and, there are varying degrees of intolerance within being considered "lactose intolerant", and I can stand a piece of cheese here or there. Lactose-free cheese...not a great idea unless you're cooking it into something. I don't know what happens with it, but it honestly just does NOT taste good plain, and definitely not uncooked, so really...try to use it in your scrambled eggs or something, don't put it on a sandwich, you'll be sorry. And I have back-up for that claim, there's another woman at work who agrees on the lactose-free cheese thing.

Ice Cream:

This was by far the most difficult for me to give up, because I can eat a little bit of cheese, but I can't take much ice cream at all. There are, once you can get past the first bites (because they never taste quite like the ice cream you crave during the first bite, especially when you're used to regular milk ice cream), almond and coconut ice creams that can actually be really amazingly good. I was as surprised as you probably will be. The problem is that they're so expensive. However - and this I only just recently found out from a friend - BREYERS now has a lactose-free line of ice creams! YES! Cow's milk without the lactose, so, according to her, it tastes just the same as regular ice cream. The only problem is that here in my area, it only comes in one flavor - vanilla. So if your favorite is rocky road, you might be out of luck. That's the next thing on my "to try" list.

Lactaid Pills

Yep! There's a pill for that. And it actually works. For the most part. Let me explain - again, it depends on your level of lactase-deficiency. Lactaid pills are a lactase enzyme supplement, they supply you with more of that great thing that helps you break down lactose, that stuff that makes you wish you were dead when you get too much. In my friend from work's case - they do the trick every single time, one pill down the hatch with your first bite of dairy (get the fast-acting, seriously, why would you get the ones you have to wait an hour for to kick in?) and you're good to go for the rest of the meal. In MY case, however, it works fine on my stomach. Not so much once things hit my intestines. So I don't have the immediate symptoms, no nausea, belching, weird tastes in the mouth (yes, I notice when I get too much dairy, I start getting this weird feeling on the back of my tongue like my saliva is turning to glue). But two or three hours down the line, it can get a little embarrassing if my boyfriend's over. So I try to just avoid dairy, but it's not as easy as it sounds. As you'll see on the Stuff to Avoid list below, it's not nearly as simple as not drinking milk or eating cheese.

Stuff to Avoid

Yes, this list is going to sound ridiculous, excessive, and absolutely impossible to stay away from everything. Again, just...try things out. Yes, you'll hit snaffu's from time to time (like my wonderful "let's go have pizza, it won't be that bad" moment with my boyfriend last week), but once you figure out what your body can tolerate, you'll be good to go.

Just for fun, I'll put a star next to things I can actually tolerate a little of, and if you like, leave what you know you can take down in the comments box, so everyone can see and learn what's GENERALLY tolerable to most people and what's not!

  • Milk
  • Cheese * (has to be whole-milk cheese for me)
  • Butter *
  • Curds
  • Whey and Whey Products (You know those protein shakes you like? Check the label!)
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Yogurt (believe it or not, most lactose-intolerants can take some amount of yogurt. I am not one of those)
  • Anything "Au Gratin"
  • Some Cakes and Cake Mixes * (I don't know if I can tolerate these or if I just love sweets so much I absolutely don't care)
  • Chocolates * (to some degree. Not so much milk chocolates, but I always liked dark chocolate better anyway)
  • Donuts
  • Coffee Creamers (there are tons of non-dairy out there too, though)
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Malted Milk (no more whoppers, boo!)
  • Some Margarines
  • Pudding
  • Any White Sauce you can put on food *
  • Some Salad Dressings * (Ranch is my favorite)
  • Lunch Meat * (I didn't believe this one, 'cause I've never had a problem with lunchmeat at all, but apparently some people do because some meats contain some amount of dairy. Except, of course, for Kosher meats.)
  • Some Bread and Bread products *
  • Some processed breakfast cereals *

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    • profile image

      Jane 4 years ago

      I have just started getting symptoms for about 2 years now. I used to have it when I was a kid and it went away but now I got it back again at age 18. It runs in my family to my mom and my grandma both have it and my great grandma did too. So now I use a lot of those lactaid pills when I eat ice cream or lots of cheese. I never drink milk anymore I can't take it. I can eat some cheese but not to much without getting alittle bloated. Can't eat any ice cream either without those pills or it will be bad. Everything else is easier to handle.

    • Elisha Jachetti profile image

      Elisha Jachetti 4 years ago

      I have been avoiding dairy as well for similar reasons. I loved ice cream and yogurt, so they were difficult to give up. Like you, I thought my life was over! Although, I feel much better now and would rather give up the dairy if it means better health! Thanks for some of the information.

    • profile image

      Sara 3 years ago

      Thanks so much for sharing this info! I, too, found out last summer, at the age of 34, that ice cream and I can no longer be friends. The lactose pills seem to work well, but not perfectly. Other random foods with cheese seem to bother me too. Hopefully we will all go into that next phase of life sooner rather than later and enjoy the foods we love again. Good luck to you!

    • profile image

      Rae 3 years ago

      Jen I thought I was the only one that was forced to drink milk as a child! Ughh, even today I get shivers when I think about drinking a glass of milk. Although, I do crave chocolate milk from time to time ( almost always a bad idea). I too, can tolerate some dairy. For instance, I can eat yogurt and sour cream in moderation. As far as cheese, no hard cheeses, but I can eat soft and processed cheese. Soft ice cream is absolutely out of the question, but I can stand a very little bit of hard ice cream. So I guess everyone is different! But thanks for the read!

    • profile image

      Rach 3 years ago

      Well this was really insightful. I have had lactose intolerance probably forever. Just didn't realize it until I was in college. I've noticed that I can eat cheese sometimes, not usually. I definitely can't eat it when its melted. So pizza is out of the question. In fact pizza is the one thing I react the most to. Aside from straight up milk, cream, whip cream etc. Pizza brings about instant pain, bloating, gas, and nausea. Yogurt, especially greek yogurt, I can eat more often than not. Icecream I can have if I don't already have dairy in my system and only in small doses. I think this one I ignore because its just too good to let go of. Chocolate is usually ok, but I have noticed in the past few months that I experience abdominal pain on the odd occasion. I also find, strangely, that skim milk is easier on my stomach than whole milk or anything with more cream in it. I have also noticed my reaction to specific breads which explains the pizza problem.

    • profile image

      Jenna 3 years ago

      This is such a great article! It gave me great insight on why I feel like crap after I eat certain dairy products. I used to be allergic to milk but it went away after years of allergy shots. Now, it has come back as an intolerance. Dairy only bothers me if I drink milk, eat ice cream, pudding, or custard; oh and I can't handle whey at all (bye, bye protein shakes). It doesn't give me pain, just makes me extremely nauseous immediately after consumption. I can eat cheeses and can eat things with milk cooked in...that's about it.

    • profile image

      Laura 3 years ago

      Hey. I'm not sure if I'm lactose intolerant but I have coeliac disease (recently diagnosed) and every time I eat dairy I get this creamy mucus feeling at the back of my throat and in my stomach even after one milky cup of tea. Not sure if anyone else gets this? I also feel nauseous and get gassy so the symptoms seem to fit, also had the experience of spending quite a bit if time in bathroom after eating a meal full of milk and cheese...but not every time?! I'm thinking if trying a lactose free diet for a week and seeing how I go but not sure if the main symptom of creamy milky mucus feeling in mouth and stomach is related? Anyone have any thoughts?

    • profile image

      Melanie 3 years ago

      I think I may actually be allergic to dairy. At first I thought I just had this terrible cold that wouldn't go away. Then, as I started to figure it out, I think it's dairy. I wouldn't eat it all day, then eat something with cheese or sour cream for dinner, and within and hour I'd be coughing and wheezing for hours. I am getting allergy tested at the end of the month to confirm what I think it true, I am not happy about it, but at least know there are alternatives. My son is dairy sensitive, so I had bought Daiya cheese for him and started using it for myself. Not the same as the real thing, but better than nothing. Since cutting out dairy I haven't had any of the coughing/wheezing fits, so I'd be shocked if I'm not allergic.

    • JenPaxton profile image
      Author

      Jen Paxton 3 years ago from Missouri

      Laura - according to my research, a lot of people with Celiac's have lactose intolerance symptoms until they get their Celiac's under control. This is because it can affect the same parts of your intestines, and if your intestines aren't absorbing things properly then lactose will just aggravate the condition. I get a little bit of that mucusy feeling myself after eating dairy, especially ice cream, I know to stop eating when I start feeling that thicker saliva feeling. TMI, I know, but... yes.

      Melanie - I'd be surprised too, certainly sounds like a dairy allergy, but I'm not a doctor. Good luck with your allergy tests!

    • profile image

      Heather 3 years ago

      I would like for someone to please give me some answers on this. I got really sick the other day and I happened a couple weeks ago also. I ate cereal with milk and the had a bowl of ice cream. Well the next morning I got sour burps and a sour stomach. I threw up several tims and afterwards felt some better. But I'm wondering if I'm becoming lactose intolerant, because the next day after I ate the cereal and ice cream I became sick with sour burps and a sour stomach. If anyone can help with some answers I would be grateful.

    • JenPaxton profile image
      Author

      Jen Paxton 3 years ago from Missouri

      Heather, you should see your doctor, that is the best way to tell. Keep a log of what you eat on days it happens and show your doctor, and they can determine the right way to diagnose you.

    • profile image

      Bonnie 3 years ago

      I use non dairy powdered creamer, until today when I actually read the label...listed is milk and milk products. How can they say it's non dairy if there are milk products in it? Grrrrrrrr!

    • profile image

      donbab 2 years ago

      I always thought milk was sour as a kid and only drank powdered mix, now only skim if ever. I can't eat icecream without getting cramps and pain but can eat any kind of yogurt. I still put half n half in my coffee but if it has been sitting out like in a store it makes me ill. I can eat hard cheeses or ones that are aged with no problem and sour cream and small amounts of ricotra have no effect if eaten with I ther foods. Love cottage cheese but think the conclusion may be no on that as my stomach blows up like a balloon. I always kbew I gad problems with dairy and wished my parents had listened.

    • profile image

      Trisha 2 years ago

      I wish all people who THINK they're lactose intolerant or milk allergic would go and get properly tested my a doctor - for quite a few reasons. If you're prove not to be either, you can start to find out what it might be instead. If you imagine you are one or the other and eliminate milk products yourself, you can be missing key dietary needs - get diagnosed properly please! If you're not diagnosed properly and only self diagose you also add to the legions of people out there who give real lactose intolerance/milk allergy sufferers a bad name. That is, people always think we are self diagnosed faddy eaters who have self diagnosed! I was properly diagnosed lactose intolerant at hospital - there is a test, it takes a few hours to administer. Lactose intolerance is not a minor thing - if I get cream accidentally in something, say a pasta sauce, I will vomit within half an hour to an hour and be extremely ill for the rest of the day. This is certainly not imagined. In the UK we do not have medication which allows you to eat lactose (lactaid?) as the medical profession thinks its not a good idea to eat things your body does not want to consume, even if you try to suppress the symptoms artificially (which is what these type of meds do). Hard cheese like parmesan is actually OK for me if it is at least two years matured, ask in a good deli. The older and harder a cheese becomes, the more the lactose is destroyed. The good news is, a little goes a long way in cooking as it has such a strong flavour. It is the only cheese I eat, and the rest of the time I exist on soya milk. I hated it at first, but it soon becomes part of normal life and now I hate the smell of fatty milk products. Learn to love black coffee, again you need to persevere and it will become the norm after a while. I wonder that I ever drank white coffee before; the bonus is, it's a lot less calories too, and the way most of the world actually drinks it.

    • profile image

      Brandi 2 years ago

      My mother in law is lactose intolerant and I'm pretty sure my husband is developing it. My husband has had some severe bowel issues after having milkshakes and our friend's cheese dip lately. Those are really the only dairy he eats in excess. He is very a much a nope that's not me kind of guy but I think he's finally seeing a problem. I thought I'd also share some things that I've learned from my mother In law. She can eat hard cheeses like off the block. She can have a little milk in her coffee if it's super hot because she said that kills off the lactose. She can eat yogurt. I know she can't eat ice cream because every time she visits she gets excited and treats us all to marble slab and 5 minutes later in the car we have to roll the windows down. She has recently gone paleo dropping all dairy and grains and she says she feels a hundred times better. She said she hasn't had bowel movements so comfortable and regular since she was a little kid.

    • profile image

      Bebh 2 years ago

      It's because cow's milk is for baby cows, not humans! We are not supposed to be able to digest it. We do not have four stomachs. We are the only species that continues to drink milk AFTER the weaning period. Would you wander into a field and suckle on a cow's udder, I don't think so.

      The dairy industry has the western world brainwashed. I am highly allergic to dairy products, and thank god! They are nothing but fat and cholesterol anyway. The human body never absorbs the calcium in dairy products because it's tied up in the casein which we cannot break down because we do not have four stomachs!

      Dairy products do nothing but irritate the body and cause mucus buildup. This coming from a person who ate more dairy products than anyone alive before I realized I was allergic! Seriously, pounds of cheese per week, white cheddar, cottage, swiss, havarti, parmesan, muenster, etc...

      After my fourth case of pneumonia, when I was only 16, I gave them up for good. I thought I was gonna die, but 30 years later I'm still here and haven't had a case of pneumonia since. Used to have a constant running case of bronchitis as well, not anymore.

      I agree, dairy products can be enjoyable-tasting, but it's just not worth it for what they do to the inside of your body.

      Don't believe me though--as I know you won't! As I said, the dairy industry has the western world brainwashed.

    • profile image

      Harley 2 years ago

      Milkshakes are the worst for me. I can handle cheese and butter just fine. Milk is about as bad as a shake. Donuts? Baaad. Chocolate? Don't enjoy it. Find it too sweet and it gives me problems too. Think I'm gluten intolerant w. Lactose. I think lactose also has to do w. Me developing diabetes (type1) as a child. My body just doesn't like milk like it did when I was little

    • renee21 profile image

      renee21 23 months ago

      I am gluten intolerant. And I'm just finding that I cannot handle dairy. Milk makes me nauseous and bloat and cheese causes me to bloat as well. I can handle butter and yogurt still, but that is all. No cheese, milk, or cream cheese for me. Great hub!

    • profile image

      Autumn 22 months ago

      Ok question my thing is the only thing that bothers me is direct milk or ice creams i can be fine with other stuff such as cheeses and other foods but direct milk makes me get diarrhea and it makes me feel like ill be sick (i havent ever) but i get that feeling and its instantly after drinking chocolate milk or eating ice cream but other item's are fine i have no idea whats going on i have always loved dairy

    • profile image

      Christy 22 months ago

      I think that is my problem now as well. However, it is not major (at this point). Really just gas/bloating after having milk or ice cream.. I was unable to have dairy as a child, but have been mostly fine ever since.. :-/

    • profile image

      carole 22 months ago

      just realized i have this eating ice cream makes me sick . i throw up mucus its thick and and long strings and i feel sick all day used to eat yogurt every day then i got really sick one day then it went to ice cream dose the things in drug store work?

    • profile image

      sheri 21 months ago

      I am 43 years old and have never been able to tolerate dairy products, u have found you

    • profile image

      Chris 11 months ago

      How can you test dairy? Or how did you guys find out

    • JenPaxton profile image
      Author

      Jen Paxton 11 months ago from Missouri

      Chris, the only 100% effective way to find out and be 100% sure is to ask your doctor to run lactose intolerance and dairy allergy tests on you. You can, however, eliminate all lactose and dairy from your system by going vegan (note I said vegan - there are small amounts of dairy in many meat products ) for a week or two, and then add in large amounts of dairy products. This way hurts though.

    • profile image

      Trish 9 months ago

      I was out as a caretaker with a young woman, we went to IHOP for breakfast, she had a milk shake and scrambled eggs with heavy cheese. I believe she maybe lactose intolerant as she has terrible cramps and she has loose stools. I am only asking so I can help her better next time I take her out. A delicate question is if she had scrambled eggs and cheese with a milk shake would her stool look like eggs and cheese.

    • JenPaxton profile image
      Author

      Jen Paxton 6 months ago from Missouri

      Well, Trish, I am not a doctor, so I can't tell you exactly what has been going on with the person you are caring for. I can tell you it's probably not normal - and you should probably consult with her doctor if you have not already, as that can be a sign of many different digestive problems. I can tell you that terrible cramps and loose stools are some signs of lactose intolerance, but they can also be a sign of many more things. It sounds like she needs to be seen by a doctor for certain, because not digesting anything like that is not normal, nor typical of lactose intolerance. Definitely consult your doctor.

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