Lactose intolerance: What it means for different ages

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Lactose intolerance is one of those medical terms that's often misunderstood. There's a difference between...

Lactose intolerance is one of those medical terms that's often misunderstood. There's a difference between milk allergy and intolerance. A dairy allergy might be life-threatening, while intolerance is more of just an annoyance. The upset stomach, cramping and gas you feel after eating or drinking dairy is a sign that your body simply doesn't make enough of the lactase enzyme to break down the proteins in milk.

That being said, what does intolerance mean for you? Well, that depends. The age of your digestive system and other factors can dictate the severity of your intolerance and how it's treated. An infant's options will definitely vary from an adult's. If you or your child suffer with this annoying and sometimes embarrassing condition, you'll need to to work to manage and learn to deal with the symptoms.

Infants. If your newborn is diagnosed with a lactose intolerance, it'll set off a wide range of actions, changes and treatment options. That's because what is a minor intolerance for adults can become a serious pain for the immature digestive systems of infants. If you notice your little one crying, gassy and uncomfortable after a feeding, intolerance could be the culprit.

Infant lactose issues can be solved in a number of ways. If you're breastfeeding, your doctor might suggest that you cut dairy products out of your diet to see if it makes a difference in your child's eating habits and comfort level. Or, if you formula feed your baby, you might be prescribed a soy-based formula, knowing the fact that cow's milk proteins are more difficult to digest. Either way, there are solutions that can work for you and your family--you'll just need to talk to your child's pediatrician first.

Who to contact. Maintain an open line of communication between yourself and your pediatrician so you can monitor your baby's reaction to milk products as he or she ages.

Children. As your child gets older, he or she may or may not grow out of it. When the issue was the result of a weak or immature digestive system, it only takes a few years for that system to catch up and become sufficient enough to digest those milk proteins. Unfortunately, that's not the case for everyone with this condition. Some children will continue to have difficulty with dairy well into their school years and beyond. You'll know your child is still suffering when dairy products result in gas, cramps and diarrhea.

When it comes to treatment options, there are tons of products available that allow your child to enjoy milk or milk-like products without the intolerance. For instance, the milk on cereal could be replaced by soy milk or rice milk so he or she doesn't have to miss out on the breakfast ritual. Soy cheese and other replacement products can also ensure that he or she gets to try all the new foods. You may also want to warn other parents, teachers and lunchroom supervisors of the issues so another kid doesn't unwittingly trade yours for a yogurt.

Who to contact. Talk with your family practioner about other ways to deal with your child's intolerance. Some medications or even ingesting a small amount of dairy products can help make the reactions less severe.

Adults. By adulthood, you probably know all too well the symptoms that occur when you indulge in a little ice cream or chase cookies with milk. It should also be known that intolerance can go hand-in-hand with other digestive issues, such as IBS or Crohn's disease. Milk products have been known to cause flare-ups of both conditions, so you may want to talk to your doc about the possibility that you could be battling something bigger than a minor intolerance only.

When it comes to treatment options, simply avoiding the foods that bother your tummy might not be enough. Since dairy products are an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, you might be missing out on essential nutrients that you'd get otherwise from your diet. A supplement might be in order, or concentrating much of your diet on calcium-rich leafy greens. You can still continue to consume dairy substitutes, like those made from rice and soy. If you do decide to indulge in the occasional dairy product, make sure that you're ready to deal with the consequences.

Who to contact. Keep in touch with your doctor about your symptoms and whether or not they could be the sign of an underlying issue, such as IBS.

If you're wondering if you or your child has an intolerance or something more, check out Kudzu for Atlanta-based family doctors who can help analyze your symptoms and give you an accurate diagnosis.


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