What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance in children: Overview

Lactose intolerance is a problem that makes it hard to digest lactose. Lactose is a sugar that is found in milk and milk products. Some children don't make enough of an enzyme called lactase. This is used to digest lactose. When this happens, it can cause gas, belly pain, diarrhea, and bloating. This is not the same as a food allergy to milk.

Lactose intolerance affects different children in different ways. Some children cannot digest any milk products. Other children can eat or drink small amounts of milk products or certain types of milk products without problems. You can help your child learn how to avoid discomfort and still get enough calcium to build and maintain healthy bones.

Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a problem that makes it hard to digest lactose. Lactose is a sugar found in dairy products. This condition causes gas, belly pain, bloating, and diarrhea. You can reduce the discomfort by avoiding milk products, using reduced-lactose products, or taking a supplement that helps you digest lactose.

Lactose intolerance isn't the same as a milk allergy.

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

Symptoms of lactose intolerance can be mild to severe. Your symptoms may depend on how much lactase your body makes. Symptoms usually start 30 minutes to 2 hours after you eat or drink milk products.

Symptoms may include:

  • Bloating.
  • Pain or cramps.
  • Gurgling or rumbling sounds in your belly.
  • Gas.
  • Loose stools or diarrhea.
  • Throwing up.

How is lactose intolerance treated?

There is no cure for lactose intolerance. But you can treat your symptoms by limiting or avoiding milk products, using milk with reduced lactose, or substituting soy milk and soy cheese for milk and milk products. You can also take dietary supplements called lactase products that help digest lactose.

How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?

A doctor can usually tell if you have lactose intolerance by asking questions about your symptoms. He or she may also ask that you avoid dairy products for a short time to see if your symptoms improve. Sometimes doctors order tests to see if you are digesting lactose normally.

How can you care for yourself when you have lactose intolerance?

If you have lactose intolerance:

  • Limit the amount of milk and milk products in your diet.
  • Eat or drink milk and milk products that have reduced lactose. Try milk with reduced lactose, such as Lactaid milk.
  • Eat or drink other foods instead of milk and milk products. Try soy milk and soy cheese. And use nondairy creamers in your coffee.
  • Use lactase products. These are dietary supplements that help you digest lactose.
  • Try yogurt. Some people who are lactose-intolerant can eat some kinds of yogurt without problems, especially yogurt with live cultures.
  • Read food labels for lactose and for lactose's "hidden" names. These include dry milk solids, whey, curds, milk by-products, and nonfat dry milk powder.
  • Get enough calcium in your diet. Foods that have calcium include:
    • Broccoli, bok choy, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens.
    • Canned sardines.
    • Calcium-fortified orange juice.
    • Calcium-fortified soy milk and tofu.
    • Almonds.
    • Dried beans.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a problem that makes it hard to digest lactose. Lactose is a type of natural sugar found in milk and dairy products. This condition isn't the same thing as a food allergy to milk.

When lactose moves through the large intestine (colon) without being properly digested, it can cause gas, belly pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Some people who have lactose intolerance can't eat or drink any milk products. Others can eat or drink small amounts of milk products or certain types of milk products without problems.

What causes lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance occurs when the small intestine doesn't make enough of an enzyme called lactase. Your body needs lactase to break down, or digest, lactose.

Sometimes the small intestine stops making lactase after a short-term illness, such as a stomach infection, or as part of a lifelong disease, such as cystic fibrosis. Or the small intestine may stop making lactase after surgery to remove a part of the small intestine. In these cases, the problem can be either permanent or short-term.

Lactose intolerance runs in families. Symptoms usually start during the teen or adult years. Most people with this type of lactose intolerance can eat some milk or dairy products without problems.

Some premature babies have temporary lactose intolerance. That's because they aren't yet able to make lactase. After a baby starts to make lactase, the problem often goes away.

Lactose intolerance: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse belly pain.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

How can you care for yourself with a lactose-restricted diet?

  • Limit the amount of milk and milk products in your diet. Spread small amounts of milk or milk products throughout the day, instead of larger amounts all at once.
    • If you have bad symptoms when you eat or drink something with lactose, you may need to avoid it completely.
    • You may be able to drink 1 glass of milk each day, although you may not be able to drink more than a ½ cup at a time. All types of milk contain the same amount of lactose.
    • If you are not sure whether a milk product causes symptoms, try a small amount and wait to see how you feel before you eat or drink more.
  • Try yogurt and cheese. These have less lactose than milk and may not cause problems.
  • Eat or drink milk and milk products that have reduced lactose. In most grocery stores, you can buy milk with reduced lactose, such as Lactaid milk.
  • Use lactase products. These are dietary supplements that help you digest lactose. Some are pills that you chew (such as Lactaid) before you eat or drink milk products. Others are liquids that you add to milk 24 hours before you drink it. Try a few products and brands to see which ones work best for you.
  • Eat or drink other foods, such as soy milk and soy cheese, instead of milk and milk products.
  • If you are very sensitive to lactose, read labels carefully to spot the lactose products.
    • Some medicines have lactose.
    • Prepared foods that may have lactose include breads, baked goods, breakfast cereals, instant breakfast drinks, instant potatoes, instant soups, baking mixes (such as pancake, cookie, and biscuit mixes), margarine, salad dressings, candies, milk chocolate, and other snacks.
    • Lactose may also be called whey, curds, or milk products.
  • Be sure to get enough calcium in your diet, especially if you avoid milk products completely. To get enough calcium, you would need to eat calcium-rich foods as often as someone would drink milk. Calcium is very important because it keeps bones strong and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Ask your dietitian for advice on how to get enough calcium. Foods that have calcium include:
    • Broccoli, bok choy, kale, and collard, mustard, and turnip greens.
    • Canned sardines and other small fish that have bones you can eat.
    • Calcium-fortified orange juice.
    • Soy products such as fortified soy milk and tofu.
    • Almonds.
    • Dried beans.
  • If you are worried about getting enough nutrients, ask your doctor about taking supplements, such as calcium and vitamin D.

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