Understanding Types of Milk Allergies

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Just as how there are many types of milk, there are many types of milk allergies.

This article addresses the difference between a milk allergy and lactose intolerance, along with the different types of milk allergies.

Shopper checking labels on a bottle of milk

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

Milk Allergy vs. Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy. A milk allergy involves the immune system, while lactose intolerance does not.

Understanding lactose intolerance and milk allergies can help you see the differences between these two conditions.

Lactose Intolerance

People with lactose intolerance don't have an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme is necessary to help break down a type of sugar found in dairy and milk products called lactose.

Here is more detail:

  • In people without lactose intolerance, lactose is broken down in the small intestine and is converted to simple sugars. These sugars are then absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy in the body.
  • In people with lactose intolerance, the lack of lactase needed to break down lactose means this process doesn't happen effectively. Instead of lactose being broken down, it sits undigested in the gut. It's then broken down by bacteria which can cause gas and other symptoms.

An intolerance like lactose intolerance does not involve the immune system.

Lactose intolerance is a common digestive issue and can cause a variety of digestive symptoms. These include:

  • Flatulence
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramping
  • Noisy stomach
  • Nausea

While lactose intolerance can cause uncomfortable symptoms, it's not life-threatening.

Milk Allergy

An allergy involves the immune system.

In people with milk allergies, the body's immune system overreacts to certain proteins found in milk.

When a person with a milk allergy consumes milk, the body then views it as a threat and launches an immune response.

This results in an allergic reaction. When this happens, the body releases a chemical called histamine, which can cause a variety of symptoms. These include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Swollen eyes
  • Itchy eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Hives
  • Cough
  • Hoarse voice
  • Tight feeling in the throat
  • Swelling
  • Lightheadedness
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Loss of consciousness

Types of Milk Allergies

Milk allergies are not one-size-fits-all. Here is more information on common types of milk allergies.

Cow's Milk Allergy

An allergy to cow's milk is more common in infants and young children. It's rare in adults.

Those who are allergic to cow's milk react to certain proteins in cow's milk. Some react to a protein called casein, while others react to a protein called whey. In some cases, a person may react to both.

A person who is allergic to cow's milk will need to entirely remove cow's milk from their diet. This not only includes removing milk itself, but also any product that contains cow's milk as an ingredient.

This may include:

  • Chocolate
  • Cereal
  • Baked goods
  • Salad dressings
  • Bread
  • Some "non-dairy" milk, butter, or creams

In some cases, cow's milk may be listed on the ingredient label as other things. These include but are not limited to:

  • Cheese
  • Dairy
  • Milk solids
  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Buttermilk
  • Ghee
  • Whey
  • Casein
  • Yogurt
  • Caseinates

Avoiding All Milk From Animals

It's also possible those with a cow's milk allergy need to avoid milk from other animals like sheep and goats. In fact, 90% of children who have an allergy to cow's milk will also have a reaction if they consume milk from goats or sheep.

Almond Milk Allergy

Almond milk is a popular alternative to cow's milk.

It has more calcium per cup than cow's milk and is also lower in calories.

However, almond milk is not suitable for everyone, particularly those who are allergic to almonds.

There are two types of almond allergy:

  • Primary almond allergy is when a person is allergic to almonds due to direct contact with almonds or almond products. This type of allergy could cause anaphylaxis and can be life-threatening.
  • Secondary almond allergy is when a person reacts to birch pollen and then later reacts to almonds. This is because a protein found in birch pollen is similar to a protein found in almonds. This is called cross-reactivity. Often, the reactions in secondary allergy are milder.

Soy Milk Allergy

Soy milk is a plant-based alternative to cow's milk made from soybeans. Soy-based products are good sources of:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Fiber
  • B vitamins

However, soy milk is not appropriate for those who have an allergy to soy. This is more common in infants and children than in adults.

Milk Allergies in Children

An allergy to cow's milk is one of the most common allergies to food in childhood.

Roughly 7% of babies less than one year old have a milk allergy, but the majority will grow out of it by the time they're 5 years old.

Summary

An allergy to cow's milk can be a serious condition and is not the same as lactose intolerance.

Those who are allergic to cow's milk should refrain from ingesting any product containing cow's milk. Cow's milk allergy is more common in infants and young children.

Almond milk and soy milk are possible alternatives, but they shouldn't be consumed by those with almond or soy allergies.

A Word From Verywell

Navigating allergies can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. If you suspect you or your child has an allergy to milk, consider making an appointment with a healthcare provider. They will be able to assist you in determining if you or your child does have an allergy and help develop a management plan for dealing with it.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you be allergic to almond milk but not almonds?

    Allergies to tree nuts, including almonds, are the most common food allergy in both children and adults.


    Those who are allergic to almonds should refrain from eating almonds or any product containing them, including almond milk. If they do ingest almonds, they risk having an allergic reaction that could be serious or even life-threatening.

  • Can you be allergic to soy milk but not tofu?

    Those who are allergic to soy should avoid all products containing soy. This includes soy milk, tofu, miso, tempeh, and soy sauce.

  • Is it possible to be allergic to rice milk?

    It's believed rice allergy is very rare. However, it's possible to be allergic to rice and products made from rice, like rice milk.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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