Lactose intolerance 


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Lactose intolerance is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose, a type of sugar mainly found in milk and dairy products.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

These symptoms usually develop within a few hours of consuming food or drink that contains lactose.

Read more about the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

When to seek medical advice

The symptoms of lactose intolerance can be similar to several other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), so it's important to see your GP for a diagnosis before removing milk and dairy products from your diet.

If your GP thinks you are likely to have lactose intolerance, they may then suggest avoiding foods and drinks containing lactose for two weeks to see if your symptoms improve.

Read more about diagnosing lactose intolerance.

What causes lactose intolerance?

The body digests lactose using a substance called lactase to break down lactose into two sugars called glucose and galactose, which can then be easily absorbed into the bloodstream.

People with lactose intolerance don't produce enough lactase, so lactose stays in the digestive system where it is fermented by bacteria, leading to the production of various gases, which cause the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.

Depending on the underlying reason why the body does not produce enough lactase, lactose intolerance may be temporary or permanent. Most cases that develop in adults are inherited and tend to be lifelong, but cases in young children are often caused by an infection in the digestive system and may only last for a few weeks.

Read more about the causes of lactose intolerance.

Is it an allergy?

Lactose intolerance is not the same as a milk or dairy allergy. Food allergies are caused by a reaction to a food by your immune system, causing symptoms such as a rash, wheezing and itching.

If you’re allergic to something, even a tiny particle can be enough to trigger a reaction, while most people with lactose intolerance can still consume small amounts of lactose without experiencing any problems (although this varies from person to person).

Treating lactose intolerance

There is no cure for lactose intolerance, but limiting your intake of food and drink containing lactose will usually help control the symptoms.

Depending on what dairy products you are able to eat, you may also require additional calcium and vitamin D supplements to keep your bones strong and healthy. In some cases, your GP may refer you to a dietitian for further advice.

In addition to dietary changes, lactase substitutes may also be helpful. These are drops or tablets you can take with your meals or drinks to improve your digestion of lactose.

Read more about treating lactose intolerance.

Who is affected

Rates of lactose intolerance can differ significantly between different ethnic groups. For example, it is thought that only one in 50 people of northern European descent have some degree of lactose intolerance, whereas most people of Chinese descent have the condition.

This may be because people from places where there has historically been no ready access to milk, such as Africa or east Asia, may not have evolved the ability to digest lactose as there was no significant benefit in being able to do so.

In the UK, lactose intolerance is more common in people of Asian or African-Caribbean descent.

Lactose intolerance can develop at any age. Many cases first develop in people aged 20 to 40, although babies and young children can also be affected.

Page last reviewed: 28/04/2014

Next review due: 28/04/2016


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The 12 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

ccfcb said on 23 September 2014

I think that the NHS could save a lot of money and hassle if they investigated food intolerances and allergies in adults with related symptoms. I used to have severe abdominal pain and twice had a series of invasive and, I suppose, rather expensive exams which showed nothing wrong with me. Then I started having diarrhoea, which my GP insisted that was caused by my body adjusting to having had a baby, even after a year had passed. Then I had a problem while on holiday, and the doctor straight away suspected some food intolerance. I was tested for several things, but the only problem found was that I am intolerant to lactose. Since I stopped eating dairy I have no more pain or diarrhoea. I still have to do my own research to make sure I eat the right foods to get enough calcium because I have no support from my GP on that either. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he has never added this to my medical records, as the test was made in another country, so he probably doesn't believe it to be true!

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irate said on 22 October 2013

This is typical of the primary care offered to fob the patient off when there is a national campaign to catch cancer in it's early stages. This is impossible when your GP surgery makes patients jump through hoops, in some cases delaying vital life saving treatment.
If you come up against a brick wall of a GP who insists there is no test available take the matter up with a practice manager and hint you may involve one of these ambulance chasing law firms if they refuse to refer you for a test. If a doctor claims there is no test available then I would doubt their qualifications.

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SD10 said on 26 April 2013

In response to laffy:

Have you considered telling your GP that you consider his refusal to make the referral effectively a ' withdrawal of treatment' or failure to act? This you consider to be a breach of his professional duties and that you feel like telling the GMC about it! A bit heavy handed perhaps, but it is absolutely dreadful that a young baby should be denied help like this.

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laffy said on 15 August 2012

My son is nearly 6 months old & has Lactose Intolorance & Soya Allergy! I have been to the GP & Heralth Visitor to find out what solid foods I can start him off on & they have told me to look it up on the Internet...However, I have already been doing that but cannot find any foods for babies that he could have either one contains Soya as replacement for Dairy!! Could anyone out there please advise as I feel I am totally alone :-(
I have demanded that my GP refer me to a Dietician, but he was very reluctant to do this...Hence I am still awaiting a referal as I have been informed that a note has been made for him to write the letter! That was 23rd July & still no letter gone out & therefore no appointment received!
I then went to see my Health Visitor & have asked her to do referal of which I am also still currently waiting for that too!
Please help me any advise would be appriciated for Lactose Intolerance & Soya Allergy for a nearly 6mth old!

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JolaK said on 26 October 2011

I am Native America, I live on one of the most populated Reserves in Canada, I know A LOT of people who are Native, I only know ONE person who is lactose intolerant!!! I do not know where you got you ill informed statements from. (•almost 100% of people of American Indian, or Asian, ethnicity).

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J355any said on 12 February 2011

In reply to janeyg: I hope you got some answers from the doctors about your daughters condition. My daughter was just the same and still is if she eats something that she isnt used to or doesnt agree with her. She has just the other day had another bout of being doubled over and crying hysterically. She settled after some calpol but she had to go home frompre school. She and her sister are both asthma sufferers so cant have any ibuprofen products which I found used to work more effectively and quicker. She cant have any milk at all or she gets the runs and pain etc its a matter of stick to what i know agrees with her and I give her prescription soya milk with nesquick milk Iflavouring in it now or she wont touch it. Its really hard but dont ever feel bad as you havent done this and it is unfortunately trial and error with certan things. Its hard to know what to do for the best!!!

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jayneyg said on 07 February 2011

In reply to J355 you could have been writing about my daughter,she too was diagnosed at 5 weeks old and was put on neocate baby milk,we were told she would probably grow out of it. I weaned her onto rice milk at 1 yr old (you cant have neocate on prescription after that!)we continued to be careful but gradually I started to introduce 'normal' foods into her diet and apart from fresh cream she seemed to tolerate it all really well including moving onto cows milk about a year ago.However for probably the last 8 months we have been struggling with her bowel movements and me being the bad mother I feel put it down to her being lazy! We have just had the weekend from hell with her and I am off to see gp in morning. Her symptoms include diarrhoea,tummy aches ,when she passes wind she nearly always follows through,and like your daughter constantly hungry When she goes to the loo they are enormous motions and incredibly offensive smelling she passes these up to 4 times a day. I feel really bad for realising sooner that its probably connected to the problems she had as a baby. Will let you know how we get on with GP.

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J355any said on 24 January 2011

My daughter was diagnosed lactose intolerant at 6 weeks old, after trial and error with certain foods She is now nearly 4 and we know she cant tolerate milk at all, can have fromage frais, cheese and crisps but cant tolerate chocolate, or normal yoghurts. The doctors dont seem concerned in any way of her missing out on other nutrients that she may be lacking but I am. I am also concerned about her constantly being hungry and crying often saying her tummy hurts and wanting more food!!! Does anyone know if this is another symptom, Having recently seen our G.P he has put her on a dairy free diet which has lessened the tummy pains and provided soya milk which she will not enter tain, but the constant hunger still remains a problem!!!. Can anyone enlighten me please x

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Squidge63 said on 11 October 2010

My sons was diagnosed as lactose intolerant at 18 months of age, we are able to manage it very well and he is careful with his diet preferring to go without than eat something that will make him ill. We have discovered that he can eat a packet of crisps containing lactose once in a while but if they contain cheese powder he reacts straight away. He is now 11 and getting to that age where he does not always want cereal for breakfast or eat yogurt so I am beginning to have concerns about his calcium intake. Although we are now able to buy lactose free cheese he does not like cheese, although when very young it was one of his favourite foods I think his body has adapted to this diet. Eating out is not too difficult as he likes bread with no spread and loves fruit. I always get suspicious when food packaging changes as that usually means the recipe has changed as well, have been caught out a few times. Crisps we find are the most difficult food product to buy manufactures insist on putting lactose in every flavour including salt and vinegar which are his favourite flavour. Thanks to Mccoys and Tesco own brand whose salt and vinegar flavour are lactose free (for the moment any way).

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Lysette said on 10 May 2010

i swear i have lactose intolerance, i have all the above symptoms. but i love cheese. and i will actually cry if i have to give that up. for some reason i don't like milk, never have which may be a sign ?

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jillR said on 28 February 2010

I have had very invasive tests such as sigmoidoscopy - MRI and pelvic scan for the diagnosis of Coccxidinia. The consultant said he would remove my Coxix because of the amount of pain and irritation. The Pelvic pain and a lump which formed on my lower back was all so intollerable I have actually cried in the doctor's surgery. I never agreed with the diagnosis because I could get pain relief from cetirazzine which I take for a fruit allergy. Watching Embarrasing bodies on chanel 4 TV people were tested for LACTOSE INTOLLERANCE. The percentage was high, which made me think I might try to go Lactose free. I am so happy that I have no pain and no bloating and no IBS since trying this out. The lump on my back is shrinking and I have to say I am shocked and delighted that after two bum and back specialists both giving the wrong diagnosis I WAS RIGHT in my assumption that my troubles were not skeletal. It is not an allergy howerver, it is the lack of an enzym but has the same effect as an allergy.

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gracieh said on 23 September 2009

I suffer from lactose intolerance and found the above information very useful.
A couple of tips I would add:
*Keep a dairy free/lactose free snack in your bag or pocket whenever you go out, this means that if nothing is available for you to eat then you will always have a back up snack.
*Always check labels of food packets before eating and try and stick to foods you know don't contain dairy rather than risking feeling ill.

Avoiding dairy requires alot of will power and self control but you will feel the benefits in the long run. Also I have managed to loose some weight from avoiding dairy food as soya products contain less fat in!

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