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What Is Lactose Intolerance? (Diagnosis, Symptoms and Treatment)

written by Vidya Sury January 25, 2021
What Is Lactose Intolerance? Diagnosis, Symptoms and Treatment

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Lactose intolerance means that you have trouble digesting foods with lactose in them. Lactose is the natural sugar found in milk and foods made with milk. Lactose intolerance is common, but it may be especially harmful for women, as it may raise a woman’s risk for health problems such as osteoporosis.

What is lactose intolerance?

If you have lactose intolerance, your body cannot digest lactose, the sugar found naturally in milk and milk products. Most people are born with the ability to digest lactose, but up to 75% of people lose the ability as they grow older.

Lactose intolerance symptoms include stomach cramps and diarrhea after you eat foods with lactose. Although it is uncomfortable, the condition is not medically serious.

What is the difference between lactose intolerance and a milk allergy?

Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk allergy.

  • Lactose intolerance is a problem with the digestive system. It causes uncomfortable symptoms but is not life-threatening.
  • milk allergy is caused by a problem with your body’s immune system. Milk allergies are more common in children younger than 3. Symptoms can range from mild (rashes or itching) to severe (trouble breathing or wheezing). A life-threatening reaction caused by an allergy is called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. Seek medical help right away if your child has any symptoms after drinking milk or eating foods with milk. Most children eventually outgrow milk allergies.

Foods with lactose - Lactose intolerance

What foods have lactose?

Lactose is found in milk and all milk products, such as yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. It is also added to many prepared foods, such as:

  • Breads and other baked goods
  • Cereals
  • Frozen dinners
  • Instant potatoes, soups, and breakfast drinks
  • Lunch meats
  • Margarines
  • Mixes for cakes, cookies, pancakes, and biscuits
  • Non-dairy liquid and powdered coffee creamers
  • Salad dressings

Check the Nutrition Facts label for products with lactose, milk, or milk by-products. These may also be listed as whey, curds, or non-fat dry milk powder.

What are lactose intolerance symptoms?

Lactose intolerance symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Read how to avoid bloating, belching and intestinal gas

Symptoms usually begin within 30 minutes to two hours after you eat or drink foods with lactose.

What is lactose intolerance diagnosis symptoms treatment

How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?

Your doctor may give you a test to see whether you have lactose intolerance. Common tests include:

  • Elimination diet: This involves avoiding anything that contains lactose. If your symptoms improve, it is taken as an initial sign that you have lactose intolerance. You also keep a log of what you ate and any symptoms you had. Then a tolerance test is done under medical supervision. This test checks whether the symptoms return after you drink a lactose solution. (Source)
  • Breath tests. Your doctor measures the hydrogen level in your breath. High levels mean you likely have lactose intolerance.
  • Blood tests. Your doctor will ask you to drink milk or a lactose solution. A lactose tolerance blood test will then show whether your lactose or glucose levels rise.

If you have lactose intolerance symptoms talk to your doctor or nurse. Your doctor or nurse may ask you to stop eating foods with lactose for a few weeks to see whether your symptoms stop.

How is lactose intolerance treated?

For most people, lactose intolerance does not require treatment. Instead, your doctor or nurse will talk to you about how to prevent of lactose intolerance symptoms. This includes limiting or avoiding foods that have lactose, such as milk and foods made with milk.

How can I prevent lactose intolerance symptoms?

Some ways to help prevent symptoms are:

  • Limit the amount of foods with lactose that you eat.
  • Take a lactase tablet just before eating foods with lactose. The tablet gives your body the lactase it is missing.
  • Choose lactose-reduced or lactose-free dairy products. These products have the same nutrients as milk, including calcium and vitamin D.

Can I eat some dairy products if I am lactose intolerant?

Maybe. Some people with lactose intolerance can eat a small amount of certain foods with lactose. For instance, you may be able to eat yogurt or aged cheeses, like cheddar or Swiss. Or you may find that you can tolerate milk if you drink it in small amounts or only at meals. Regularly having some dairy products may help keep lactose intolerance from getting worse.

If you cannot tolerate any amount of milk or milk products, you should find other ways to get enough calcium and vitamin D. Calcium and vitamin D are needed for healthy bones and teeth and essential functions of the body like a steady heartbeat. Ask your doctor or nurse whether you should take a calcium or vitamin D supplement every day. Or you can try lactose-free dairy products.

Lactose-free and lactose-reduced milk and milk products

Using lactose-free and lactose-reduced milk and milk products may help you lower the amount of lactose in your diet. These products are available in many grocery stores and are just as healthy for you as regular milk and milk products.

Calcium and Vitamin D

If you are lactose intolerant, make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D each day. Milk and milk products are the most common sources of calcium.

Many foods that do not contain lactose are also sources of calcium. Examples include:

  • fish with soft bones, such as canned salmon or sardines
  • broccoli and leafy green vegetables
  • oranges
  • almonds, Brazil nuts, and dried beans
  • tofu
  • products with labels that show they have added calcium, such as some cereals, fruit juices, and soy milk

Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium. Be sure to eat foods that contain vitamin D, for example: eggs and certain kinds of fish, such as salmon. Some ready-to-eat cereals and orange juice, some milk and milk products are fortified with vitamin D.

If you can drink small amounts of milk or milk products without symptoms, choose products that have added vitamin D. Also, being outside in the sunlight helps your body make vitamin D.

Talk with your doctor or dietitian about whether you are getting the nutrients you need. For safety reasons, also talk with your doctor before using dietary supplements or any other complementary or alternative medicines or practices. Also talk with your doctor about sun exposure and sun safety.

How does lactose intolerance affect women’s health?

Lactose intolerance may prevent you from getting enough calcium and vitamin D, which are important for bone health. Calcium and vitamin D are found in many foods with lactose, including milk and milk products.

Women especially need to get enough calcium and vitamin D throughout life to help build and maintain bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Read about coping with osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to weaken and break easily. More women than men are at risk for osteoporosis.

If you are lactose-intolerant, your doctor or nurse will likely talk to you about how to get more calcium and vitamin D each day. A dietary supplement may give you the amount you need to help prevent osteoporosis, or you can try lactose-free dairy products.

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