Cow milk protein allergy is different from lactose intolerance: Here's how to differentiate between the two

In CMPA, it is our immune system which produces an overreaction to one or more proteins contained in cow milk, while lactose intolerance is our body reaction to the lactose which is nothing but the sugar present in the milk.

Myupchar July 02, 2020 11:52:54 IST
Cow milk protein allergy is different from lactose intolerance: Here's how to differentiate between the two

Allergic reaction symptoms range from mild to severe. Food allergies are conventionally defined as our body’s negative reaction to proteins found in foods like milk, peanut, fish, egg, wheat, soy, and seeds. These items are commonplace in our kitchen, so we should not be surprised that some of the allergic reactions are caused by these foods.

As many of these food items become part of a baby’s complementary feeds (food and liquid items introduced when breast milk isn't enough) at the age of six months, food allergies in infants can start as soon as the first few days since the introduction of these foods. Due to the culturally influenced practice of introducing cow’s milk at this time, if the child has cow’s milk protein allergy, you’ll notice the symptoms then itself.

Out of all the allergies that can bother infants and toddlers, cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) is the most common one that typically impacts children in the age group of 0-3 years. Defining the problem is the first step towards understanding it. The broadest definition of CMPA is the body’s inability to digest the protein which is present in the cow’s milk. The body adversely responds to the protein present in the cow’s milk when it judges the protein as dangerous, which triggers the onset of symptoms. Cow milk allergies are also seen in exclusively breastfed infants, where the mother’s diet has prominent consumption of cow milk and products from milk such as paneer. India sees close to 3-5 percent of babies who suffer from cow milk allergies.

How to identify CMPA?

Many symptoms accompany the onset of CMPA. The symptoms involve multiple systems like skin, digestive tract and respiratory tract and present either alone or as a combination of symptoms which include the following:

• Rashes or hives
• Puffiness near the areas of lips, mouth or eyes
• Nausea and vomiting
• Pain in the abdomen
• Diarrhoea
• Inconsolable crying

The body may not react instantaneously and there are chances of there being a delay in the symptoms to manifest to their full intensity.

Difference between CMPA and lactose intolerance

CMPA shares some of its symptoms with lactose intolerance. The shared commonality exacerbates the situation as it causes a delay in the diagnosis. Parents often think that they are dealing with lactose intolerance, which on the face looks like CMPA but is an entirely different condition altogether.

The difference between CMPA and lactose intolerance stems from what causes the reaction. In CMPA, it is our immune system which produces an overreaction to one or more proteins contained in cow milk, while lactose intolerance is our body reaction to the lactose which is nothing but the sugar present in the milk. Simply put, allergy has to do with proteins and intolerance involves sugar.

How CMPA impacts the quality of lives of both infants and parents 

Watching babies crying in pain from allergy symptoms (which can lead to improper growth) is terribly distressing for parents. It becomes very difficult to connect the dots as multiple systems and symptoms are involved. With lack of sleep and lost hours for working parents, the entire family becomes emotionally charged, all the more so when the health and happiness of a newborn appear to be at stake. It is, therefore, critical to get a handle on the awareness of symptoms and seek medical advice at the earliest.

There is an assortment of solutions available to diagnose and treat CMPA. The first phase of treatment encompasses the elimination of cow’s milk and milk products from the diet of breastfeeding mothers and eliminating milk or other suspected food allergens from complementary feeds. The removal of the nutrition sourced from cow’s milk must be compensated by other sources of nutrition to keep the child on their growth curve. As parents, identifying the problem as early as possible is key to treating it.

This article was written by Dr Prashant Bachina, Consultant Pediatric Gastroenterologist, Hepatologist and Liver Transplant Physician at Rainbow Children’s Hospital.

For more information, read our article on Milk: Benefits and Side Effects.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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