Lactose Intolerance: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis And Treatment

Lactose intolerance
Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.
 

Lactose intolerance is a condition wherein the body has difficulty in digesting lactose, the natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. It is different from having a food allergy to milk. When lactose is not properly digested, it causes discomfort when moving through the colon or large intestine. Some people with lactose intolerance can eat or drink small amounts of dairy products or particular types of dairy products without having problems but others cannot digest any kind of dairy products even in very small amounts. A big challenge for people with this condition is learning how to avoid discomfort by choosing food carefully and getting the recommended amount of calcium for healthy bones daily.

Lactose Intolerance Signs And Symptoms

Lactose Intolerance Signs And Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of the condition usually start to be experienced within 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming foods with lactose. The common signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance are:

Lactose Intolerance Signs

In many cases, the symptoms are just mild but they can sometimes be severe depending on the severity of lactose intolerance and how much dairy products were consumed. If you or your child has any signs and symptoms that are worrisome like severe abdominal pain, consult your physician.

Lactose Intolerance Causes And Risk Factors

The main cause of lactose intolerance is not having enough of the enzyme lactase which is produced by the cells lining the small intestine. The factors that make a person more prone to lactose intolerance:

 

  • Aging: The condition becomes more common as a person gets older. It is not very common in babies and very young children.
  • Ethnicity: Lactose intolerance is very common in African Americans, Asians, American Indians and Hispanics.
  • Premature Birth: Some infants that are born prematurely have lower levels of the enzyme lactase because it increases* in the foetus during the late part of the third trimester.
  • Diseases That Affect the Small Intestine: Certain problems of the small intestine can lead to lactose intolerance. This includes the overgrowth of bacteria, Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
  • Some Treatments for Cancer: Radiation therapy in the abdominal area or chemotherapy complications can cause lactose intolerance.

Types of Lactose Intolerance

There are three main types of lactose intolerance.

  • The first is congenital lactose intolerance wherein the person is born with the condition. This is a rare type of the condition but some premature born babies have lactose intolerance and in some cases it is hereditary.
  • The second is primary lactose intolerance wherein it develops as a person gets older. As the diet becomes more varied becoming less reliant on milk, lactose intolerance may develop.
  • The third is secondary lactose intolerance wherein injury or illness causes the insufficient production of the enzyme lactase. In most cases, treating the underlying disorder can improve* signs and symptoms.

Tests and Diagnosis For Lactose Intolerance

Tests and Diagnosis For Lactose Intolerance

Physicians may suspect lactose intolerance from the symptoms of the patient and how they respond to the reduction* of dairy foods from their diet. Confirmation of diagnosis can be done through one or a combination of the following tests:

  • Lactose Tolerance Test: It gauges how the body reacts to liquid which contains high amounts of lactase. Blood tests are also done after two hours from ingestion to check the amount of blood glucose. No change in blood glucose means the body is not properly digesting and absorbing the liquid.
  • Hydrogen Breath Test: It also involves drinking a liquid that contains lactose. Then, the amount of hydrogen in the breath is measured at specific intervals. If the body cannot properly digest lactose, hydrogen levels increase* due to fermentation of the lactose in the large intestine.
  • Stool Acidity Test: This is only for infants or small children who are not able to undergo the other tests for lactose intolerance. Undigested lactose causes fermentation creating lactic acid along with other acids that are detectable through a stool sample.

Treatments and Medications For Lactose Intolerance

In most cases, the best treatment is to limit the amount of dairy product in the diet. Most people with lactose intolerance can consume about 10 grams of lactose a day which is the amount in a glass of milk. Eating or drinking dairy products with other foods can also reduce* or even eliminate* symptoms in most cases. Those who are highly intolerant to lactose can take lactase as a supplement whenever they consume dairy products to relieve or prevent the different signs and symptoms.

Precautions and Self Care

If you have lactose intolerance, you need to reduce* intake of dairy products. This may cause problems involving calcium intake but there are other food sources for the vital bone building mineral like broccoli, calcium-fortified cereals and juices, canned salmon, soy milk and spinach. You can also take a calcium supplement or multivitamin with enough calcium. If you really want to consume dairy products, try lactase supplements like Lactaid.

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Author

Expert Author : Dr. Ahmed Zayed (Consumer Health Digest)

Dr. Ahmed Zayed Helmy holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. He has completed his degree in 2011 at the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed believes in providing knowledgeable information to readers. Other than his passion for writing, currently he is working as a Plastic surgeon and is doing his masters at Ain shams University.