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Milk Allergy: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

  • Author :
  • TATA AIG Team
  • Published on :
  • 29/01/2024
  • 2 min read

Cow milk is one of the most common food allergens. In fact, a significant percentage of infants, especially those under 3, grapple with milk allergy. Although most of these children grow out of this allergy, there are cases where it may carry on into adulthood.

Recent studies on milk allergy have shown that approximately less than 20% of children overcome their allergy by the age of 4. Still, thankfully 80% that are affected tend to outgrow the allergy by the age of 16.

What is Milk Allergy?

A milk allergy is a food allergy where one's immune system overreacts to the proteins in the milk that has been consumed. Although cow's milk is the most common cause of milk allergies, other types of animal milk, like goat milk or sheep milk can also trigger the immune system.

A milk allergy can manifest itself differently in different age groups. Most infants below 3 develop milk protein intolerance, while children and adults develop lactose intolerance.

How Does Milk Allergy Affect the Body?

A milk allergy triggers one's immune system, in which the body creates immunoglobulin E (IgE), a type of antibody, upon exposure to milk. The human body creates various types of IgE antibodies that target specific allergens in the body.

IgE antibodies, in particular, tend to bind themselves to mast cells, also known as allergy cells, that are present in the skin, respiratory tracts and the cardiovascular system. Upon exposure to the allergens, in this case, the milk proteins, these IgE antibodies release histamine, which is the cause of visible allergy symptoms.

Since IgE antibodies react very quickly to the milk proteins, the release of histamine can manifest into reactions like anaphylaxis, which is a fatal reaction of the body.

If the body's response to milk is slower compared to an IgE-mediated reaction, the symptoms can take up to 48 hours to develop. The reactions in this case are not necessarily due to the IgE antibodies being triggered.

One of the most common non-IgE reactions in infants is seen due to milk. Most of the non-IgE food allergies, including milk allergy, are not life-threatening but may cause discomfort to the body.

What are Milk Allergy Causes?

So far there have been no exact causes found for the development of milk allergy in the human body. Hence, all treatments related to the allergy are approached based on the symptoms that the body shows.

Milk Allergy Symptoms

Symptoms of milk allergy can manifest in different individuals differently. However, the severity of these symptoms can have a significant impact on an individual's well-being and hence must be taken seriously. Here are some common allergic reactions and milk allergy symptoms one should look out for:

Skin Reactions

Most food allergies are quick to show on the skin first, making it a visible sign of a triggered immune system. These reactions can be seen in varied skin reactions like hives, eczema, redness, and even swelling.

Hives are inflamed, itchy welts on the surface of the skin that appear in large numbers and make the skin look red and inflamed. Eczema, on the other hand, appears like dry patches of red skin that have slight inflammation and are itchy.

The onset of these visible reactions to any allergen helps healthcare professionals recognise and address the onset of a reaction promptly.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Milk allergy symptoms extend to the digestive system which gives rise to a range of gastrointestinal symptoms. Starting with abdominal pain, the symptoms could develop into diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.

Understanding the root of the reactions and treating the symptoms promptly, especially when they are paired with skin reaction is very crucial to stop the allergic reaction from impacting the body any further.

Respiratory Symptoms

Individuals diagnosed as allergic to dairy products may frequently experience respiratory symptoms as the body reacts to allergens. This can cause significant impacts on the upper and lower respiratory tract.

Along with prolonged difficulty in easy breathing, sneezing, coughing, wheezing, and a runny or stuffy nose are all telltale signs of the body reacting to the allergens. Monitoring and treating these symptoms is essential in ensuring they do not progress further, impacting respiratory health.


A severe reaction to milk allergy may escalate to anaphylaxis, which is an over-release of chemicals in the body as a response to the allergens. This over-release of chemicals induces reactions in multiple organs of the body, leading to escalated symptoms like airway constriction, a significant drop in blood pressure that can lead to cardiovascular compromise and loss of consciousness due to the body going into shock.

Timely intervention during the manifestation of an anaphylaxis attack is paramount for reversing the symptoms. To help counter such situations, first aid treatments like EpiPens are used.

Milk Allergy Diagnosis

To accurately diagnose any allergic reaction factors like the individual's medical history, risk factors, and initial allergic responses are of great significance. Individuals with a history of respiratory issues like asthma, especially paired with severe reactions like anaphylaxis, need specialised guidance from Allergists.

Medical professionals use a range of tests to help diagnose specific allergies that can trigger IgE antibodies in the body. Here are some common tests used to diagnose allergies:

The Skin Prick Test

It is a standard method of testing that involves the application of potential allergen samples on the skin that has been pricked using a tiny needle. Any significant inflammation or reaction on the marked skin is a telltale sign of an allergic reaction.

Oral Food Test

This is a test conducted under the supervision of medical professionals where the potential allergen is introduced to the body in controlled amounts in the initial round, with a gradual increase in amounts introduced in the next round.

This helps diagnose any reactions in a controlled setting without risking any exposure to the body in an unexpected and natural environment.

Blood Test

Blood tests are used to track the levels of the IgE antibodies that are produced in response to the allergens in the body. Significant elevation in the IgE levels is a clear indication that the immune system is triggered in the event of an allergic reaction.

However, to lead to a diagnosis, there are specific symptoms people need to act on and seek medical attention. It is wise to consult with medical professionals under the following circumstances:

If one is unsure if they have had an anaphylactic reaction.

The symptoms are recurring and difficult to control.

It is challenging to manage the condition of the body.

Milk Allergy Treatment

The best way to treat any allergy is to avoid it in the first place. Avoiding any consumption of milk products and milk is vital to ensuring that no severe reactions occur. Since milk is a widely used substance in cooking, it can be found in a variety of foods.

One way to avoid an allergic reaction is to ensure that at least the packaged foods are safe to consume. Here are some food labels to avoid if one has a milk allergy:

Common Food Labels Indicating Milk Products

Artificial butter flavour Chocolate
Brown sugar flavouring Milk
Nisin Lactose, lactulose 
Lactalbumin, lactalbumin phosphate Lactoglobulin, lactoferrin 
Half and Half Hydrolysates (casein, milk protein, protein, whey, whey protein)
Cheese, cottage cheese Ghee
Caseinates (ammonium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium) Custard, pudding
Recaldent Nougat
Rennet casein Lactose
Sour cream or sour cream solids Luncheon meats, hot dogs, sausages 
Whey (delactosed, demineralised, protein concentrate) Margarine
Yoghurt Simplesse
Butter, butter fat, butter oil High protein flour
Casein, casein hydrolysates  Flavourings (natural and artificial) 
Caramel flavouring Cream


Epinephrine is the primary treatment for severe allergic reactions and the onset of anaphylaxis attacks. It reverses any life-threatening symptoms and helps buy time till the affected individual receives medical attention.

EpiPens are auto-injectors that are first-aid injections containing epinephrine. They are portable and easy to use, making them ideal for any emergencies. It is advised by medical professionals, that all individuals diagnosed with food allergies carry an EpiPen with them at all times.


Although antihistamines may not be as effective as epinephrine, they can help relieve mild allergic symptoms by blocking the effects of histamine in the body. They are mainly used to provide relief for milder allergic reactions.

Difference Between Milk Allergy and Lactose Intolerance

Milk allergies are often confused with lactose intolerance. These, however, are two different health conditions.

Milk Allergy Lactose Intolerance
Is an immune system overreaction to milk. Is a syndrome that occurs when the body cannot digest lactose.
Severe milk allergy reactions like anaphylaxis can be fatal. Lactose intolerance can cause great discomfort but is not life-threatening.
Treatment focuses on elevating the symptoms of the allergic reaction. Treatment focuses on the reduction of lactose in the diet. 
Involves the use of drugs like epinephrine and antihistamines for treatment.  Involves the use of lactase for treatment. 

Living With a Milk Allergy

Although living with a milk Allergy can be challenging, it is something that can be managed well when navigated with understanding.

The very first step is to be aware of the onset of the allergic reactions. An initial mild reaction to an allergen does not guarantee that all other reactions will be equally mild. Hence, close attention to allergic reactions and preventing the consumption of any allergens is critical to avoiding escalated situations.

One should take precautions while socialising and dining out by ensuring that any food that one might consume is free of allergens. Updating one’s cell phone with healthcare apps that record all information about the allergy diagnosis is also a wise move.

Another critical aspect of dealing with a milk allergy is maintaining a healthy and balanced diet.

Ensuring a Healthy Diet

It can prove quite challenging to maintain a balanced diet if one is grappling with milk allergies. Since milk is such a widely used substance in cooking, it can put limitations on the type of food that can be consumed. Fortunately, there is an array of food alternatives available on the market that are milk allergy-friendly.

Soy milk is a notable substitute as it offers an equal amount of protein as cow milk, as well as almost 50% more calcium.

Unsweetened almond milk is also a great alternative to cow milk.

Hemp powder is a great option for smoothies and muffins or even oatmeal, as it has around 15 grams of protein per serving.

Leafy greens are also an excellent source of calcium alongside iron and essential vitamins.

Importance of Health Insurance

Dealing with chronic allergies is taxing on the mind and the budget. Persistent allergies require lifestyle changes as well as regular healthcare checkups along with medications. Long-term treatments can be heavy on one’s finances, especially since allergy medications can be pretty expensive.

A health insurance plan plays a crucial role as a financial safety net for emergencies. Good medical insurance helps cover a range of expenses associated with treating chronic allergies including aspects like payments of prescriptions, medical visits and potential emergency interventions.

With Tata AIG, buy health insurance that is tailored to your individual needs at excellent, cost-effective prices. Tata AIG also provides options such as cashless health insurance that will help ease added stress during any emergencies for you. Safeguard your future and your health with Tata AIG today.


In conclusion, in spite of its complex nature, milk allergy is a health condition that can be managed with a good understanding and awareness of the symptoms and their treatment. Accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment based on the diagnosis are essential to maintaining a healthy and stress-free lifestyle.

Opting for milk alternatives that suit individual dietary needs and vigilant consumption of processed or outside food is critical to supporting the overall health of the body.


Is milk allergy the same as milk protein intolerance?

No, milk protein intolerance does not involve any reactions of the immune system. Milk protein intolerance is the body's inability to digest the milk protein. This condition usually leads to symptoms like gas, cramps, bloating or diarrhoea. Unlike milk allergy, it is not life-threatening.

What to do if the formula-fed baby is allergic to cow's milk?

If a formula-fed baby is allergic to cow's milk, you can request for a non-cow milk formula that is protein-based. However, consult a paediatrician in such a case.

Disclaimer: This is a general guide on milk allergies and their treatment. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. It is advisable to consult a qualified health professional for treatment in severe cases.

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