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Milk Protein Allergy

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What Is A Milk Protein Allergy?

A milk protein allergy, or a cow milk protein allergy (CMPA), is a food allergy in which a person’s immune system has a histamine response to the protein in a cow’s milk, though it can also be triggered by the milk of other animals, including goats and sheep. It is most common in infants and children. Unlike other food allergies, an allergy to cow milk protein can disappear over time.

CMPA is also distinct from lactose intolerance, though many people confuse the two. Lactose intolerance is caused by the lack of lactase in a patient and is not an allergic response. Lactose intolerance also only causes digestive symptoms, whereas a milk allergy causes respiratory and other symptoms as well.

Types Of Milk Allergies

There are two types of milk allergies: IgE-mediated allergies and non-IgE-mediated allergies.

IgE-Mediated Allergies

In IgE-mediated allergies, the body generates an immediate response to cow’s milk (within minutes or up to 2 hours) and begins to produce IgE antibodies. These antibodies then trigger the release of histamines which cause an allergic reaction. In rare cases, those with an IgE-mediated milk allergy may go into anaphylactic shock. Anyone experiencing anaphylaxis should seek immediate medical care.

Non-IgE-Mediated Allergies

In non-IgE-mediated allergies, the allergic reaction can take longer and may appear a few hours or even a few days after exposure to milk. Some patients may have a combination of both types of milk allergies.

Signs and Symptoms of Milk Allergies

Signs and symptoms of milk allergies can vary. Some immediate signs that can appear include:

  • Hives
  • Wheezing
  • Swelling in the tongue, throat, or lips
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Tingling or itchiness around the mouth

Some patients may experience symptoms that take longer to develop, including:

  • Diarrhea, with blood
  • Loose stools, with blood
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Colic (infants)
  • Runny, watery eyes
  • Runny nose

Rare cases may involve anaphylaxis. Anyone experiencing symptoms of anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing, an increased heart rate, or dizziness, should seek immediate medical attention.

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Milk Protein Allergy vs Milk Intolerance

Milk protein allergies are not the same as a milk intolerance. Those with a milk intolerance do not have enough of the enzyme lactase in their bodies, which limits their ability to break down the lactose in dairy products. This results in digestive distress and symptoms.

A milk protein allergy is very different and involves a histamine response triggered by the body’s immune system. This results in system-wide symptoms that can affect much more than just digestion.

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What Causes Allergic Reactions To Milk?

As with all allergies, a milk allergy involves the body having a strong reaction to a trigger. In the case of a milk allergy, that trigger most commonly is the alpha S1 casein protein in the milk. The body reacts to this protein by releasing histamines. These histamines, in return, trigger an immune response in the body.

This immune response causes a variety of symptoms including respiratory symptoms, digestive troubles, and itchiness. The cause of a milk allergy is very different from the cause of lactose intolerance, which is triggered by the lack of the lactase enzyme in the body.

Risk Factors Of Milk Protein Allergies

There are a number of risk factors that may increase a person’s chance of developing a milk protein allergy. These include a family history of milk protein allergies, as well as atopic dermatitis. Milk protein allergies are also more likely to appear in younger patients.

Finally, patients with other allergies are also more likely to end up with a milk protein allergy.

How Are Milk Protein Allergies Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a milk protein allergy is a multi-step process. Typically, it begins with a patient interview in which a doctor asks about family history and the patient’s exposure to allergens. The doctor will also conduct a physical exam. Finally, a doctor may also use either a skin test or a blood test to confirm a diagnosis of a milk protein allergy.

Treatment Options For Milk Protein Allergies

There are a wide range of treatment options for those with milk protein allergies. The first line of defense is to avoid exposure to milk products. Milk proteins may be present in many foods beyond a glass of milk, including baked goods and processed foods. Consulting with a doctor can help patients avoid any foods that can trigger an allergic response.

If a patient is inadvertently exposed to milk proteins that trigger an allergy attack, then an antihistamine can help relieve the body’s allergic response. In extreme cases involving anaphylaxis, immediate medical attention or the administration of injectable epinephrine via an EpiPen is necessary.

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Milk Protein Allergy FAQ

What Are Some Allergy-Safe Milk Alternatives?

There are a wide range of alternative milk products on the market today that can provide tastes similar to milk without exposing a patient to milk. These include almond milk, coconut milk, and soy milk.

What Are the Hidden Sources of Milk?

The proteins in milk can appear in some unexpected places, inadvertently exposing patients to this allergen. While one might expect milk or casein (milk protein) to be in baked goods, for example, casein might also be used in canned tuna, sausages, or meats. Milk protein is even found in chewing gum, on occasion. Reviewing the list of all ingredients in processed foods is the best way to avoid exposure to milk proteins. Patients can also compile a list of safe foods in consultation with their doctor.

When Do People Start To Develop a Milk Protein Allergy?

Most people develop a milk protein allergy during infancy and early childhood. Over time, the good news is that children’s digestive systems evolve and become more resilient when confronted with milk protein, causing some patients to “grow out of” the condition.