Dairy Allergy: What to Eat and What to Avoid

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Dairy allergies 101 – everything you need to know to stay safe with a dairy allergy. Includes dairy allergy vs dairy intolerances, a list of symptoms, and what you need to avoid to not have a reaction. 

Dairy allergies are one of the most common allergies and it is included in the top 9 allergens  affecting the world. It is often confused with dairy intolerance. While the symptoms of allergies and intolerances do overlap, they are different conditions of the body with different outcomes. However, there are simple things you can do to determine if you have a dairy allergy and how best to manage it. 

This article walks you through all aspects of a dairy allergy, symptoms, what to avoid, what you can still enjoy, and how best to manage your dairy allergy. 

What is a dairy allergy? 

Dairy allergies are one of the most common allergies in the world, making it included in the top 9 allergens. It is most common in children with up to 2% of all children needing to avoid it. It can be outgrown as the child grows up. If you become allergic to dairy as an adult, you will probably have this allergy for the rest of your life. 

An allergy occurs when the body is exposed to the dairy protein and develops a strong IgE antibody response. This is the body’s own antibodies working to protect the body from something it sees as a threat, in this case a dairy protein. The body responds by triggering the immune system that has different effects on the body (see symptom list below) that can range from mild to life-threatening. 

Dairy allergy or dairy intolerance? 

Dairy allergies and dairy intolerance can seem similar at first, though they are two very different responses in the body. It is further complicated as they are both reactions of the autoimmune systems. Let’s break down the differences between the two. 

A dairy allergy occurs when the dairy proteins cause the body to stimulate the immune system into hyperdrive, causing what is known as an allergic reaction. These can be life threatening events that must be treated as quickly as possible, with a drip to the hospital if the reaction is severe. For example, symptoms include anaphylaxis, asthma attacks, swelling of the tongue and throat, hives, trouble breathing, itching, coughing, rashes, shock, and panic attacks. 

A dairy intolerance is when the body does not produce an enzyme in the gut to break down the lactose, which is a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Since the body does not produce this enzyme, you can experience varying degrees of gastrointestinal discomfort. For instance, symptoms such as nausea, gas, bloating, cramps, and diarrhea can occur. Having a lactose/dairy intolerance, while not fun, is not life threatening. 

Only a doctor can tell you for certain if you have a dairy allergy or dairy intolerance. Make an appointment with your doctor or allergy specialist if you suspect you have one! 

a white glass of milk with milk being poured in is in front of a bright blue background. text on the image talks about dairy allergy vs intolerance

Can I eat goat milk or sheep milk with a dairy allergy?

For most people, no, you should not eat goat milk or sheep milk if you have a milk allergy.

The proteins in dairy are what causes the reaction, specifically the whey protein and the casein protein. The casein protein is what is typically the root cause of allergic reactions.

Both cow milk and goat milk have similar, and sometimes even the same, casein proteins.

Because the proteins in dairy and goat milk are so close, the body often times confuses them, causing an allergic reaction.

In short, goat milk and sheep milk are not considered safe to eat if you are allergic to dairy.

Symptoms of a dairy allergy 

Most children and adults will develop an allergic reaction either immediately, a few minutes, and up to a few hours after consuming dairy. Remember, some people are so allergic to certain foods that even touching the food or smelling the food can cause a reaction. 

A list of possible reactions includes: 

  • Swelling, itching, or irritation of the mouth, lips, tongue, or throat
  • Asthma attacks
  • Eczema on the skin
  • Hives, itching rash on the skin
  • Nasal congestion 
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Cramping and/or pain of the stomach or bowels
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anaphylactic reaction (see below) 

Anaphylactic dairy allergy

For some people, a life threatening reaction known as an anaphylactic reaction may occur after consuming, touching, or smelling dairy or dairy by-products. If this happens, please call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Signs and symptoms of this include:

  • Swelling or tightening of the throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Change of normal coloring of the skin in the mucous membranes (inner lips, gums, around the eyes, and nail beds)
    • Light skin, check for signs of dark blue tints in the mucous membranes 
    • Medium skin, check for signs of a gray-green tint in the mucous membranes
    • Dark skin, check for signs of a gray or white tint in the mucous membranes 
a glass of milk is in front of a blue background. text on the image shows symptoms of a dairy allergy

How to manage dairy allergies 

The best way to manage your dairy allergy is to avoid any and all forms of dairy and dairy by-products. 

If after some time you feel you would like to test and see if you are still allergic to dairy, consult your doctor and ask about doing a challenge test to gauge your reaction under the supervision of your doctor. 

Being your own allergy advocate 

And if you are certain something is wrong, don’t give up! My primary care physician was unconvinced I had developed a new allergy in my late 20s. He was ready to prescribe an anti-acid medication, assuming I was eating too much fast food.

However, I was adamant in my knowing that something was wrong and went to a new allergy specialist. I had my blood checked and my IgE levels were off the charts! As a result, we did an elimination diet and saw immediate improvements in my health.

After 6 weeks of the elimination diet, I reintroduced certain foods and saw immediate and severe reactions to new foods. Be your own advocate at the doctor’s office, and make sure you take someone with you to help navigate if you need.

What you can eat with a dairy allergy

When you discover you have a dairy allergy, you may find yourself cooking at home more. A healthy diet includes simple whole foods, things like meats, vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, and grains. 

Dairy free options are more numerous than ever before and can be found all throughout the grocery stores, both niche health food stores and large chain stores. Living with allergies has gotten a lot more convenient since I was a kid! 

Want to know the best things to swap for different recipes? Make sure you check out my Food Swap Guide

An easy trick to shopping for dairy free items is to look for things labeled “vegan”. These products will not contain any animal products, including dairy and all its hidden names. Just make sure you still read the label as you can never be too careful! 

What to Avoid with a Dairy Allergy

The list of foods to avoid with a dairy allergy is long. I’ve included all the ones that I have discovered but the list is always growing and changing. If you know of a dairy name that I’ve missed, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it to the list! 

  • Milk
    • Including: acidophilus milk, butter milk, buttermilk blend, buttermilk solids, cultured milk, condensed milk, dried milk, dried milk solids, evaporated milk, fat-free milk, fully cream milk powder, goat’s milk, Lactaid milk, lactose milk, low fat milk, malted milk, milk derivative, milk powder, milk protein, milk solids, milk solid pastes, nonfat dry milk, nonfat milk solids, pasteurized milk, powdered milk, sheep’s milk, skim milk, skim milk powder, sour milk, sour milk solids, sweet create buttermilk powder, sweetened condensed milk, sweetened condensed skim milk, whole milk, 1% milk, 2% milk
  • Butter
    • Including: artificial butter, artificial butter flavor, butter, butter extract, butter fat, butter flavored oil, butter solids, dairy butter, natural butter, natural butter flavor, whipped butter
  • Caramel
  • Casein & Caseinates
    • Including: ammonium caseinate, calcium caseinate, hydrolyzed casein, iron caseinate, magnesium caseinate, potassium caseinate, sodium caseinate, zinc caseinate
  • Cheese (all kinds)
  • Cream
  • Curds
  • Custard
  • Dairy product solids
  • Galactose
  • Ghee
  • Half & Half
  • Hydrolysates
    • Including: casein hydrolysate, milk protein hydrolysate, protein hydrolysate, whey hydrolysate, whey protein hydrolysate, hydrolysate ice cream
  • Lactalbumin, lactalbumin phosphate
  • Lactate solids
  • Lactic yeast
  • Lactitol monohydrate
  • Lactoglobulin
  • Lactose
  • Lactulose
  • Milk Fat
  • Nisin preparation
  • Nougat
  • Pudding
  • Quark
  • Recaldent
  • Rennet, rennet casein
  • Simplesse
  • Sour cream
  • Whipping cream
  • Whey
    • Including: acid whey, cured whey, delactosed whey, demineralized whey, hydrolyzed whey, powdered whey, reduced mineral whey, sweet dairy whey, whey, whey protein, whey protein concentrate, whey powder, whey solids
  • Yogurt (regular or frozen)

Milk and Dairy are sometimes found in the following products:

  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Baby Formulas
  • Bread
  • Candy
  • Canned Tuna
  • Chewing Gum
  • Cereals
  • Granola bars
  • Gravy packs
  • Instant Potatoes
  • Hot dogs
  • Lunch meats
  • Natural Flavoring
  • Flavoring
  • Caramel Flavoring
  • High protein powder
  • Lactic acid
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Rice and Soy cheese

What You Can Eat with a Dairy Allergy

After developing a new allergy, how you eat both at home and out and about is very likely going to change. Cooking at home is going to be the safest option for you and your family as you can ensure no allergens come into contact with the food and no cross contamination can occur. Make sure your diet is filled with simple whole foods, such as meats, grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, and lentils.

Living with allergies has gotten so much better in the past few years thanks to the requirements of labeling all food in grocery stores, as well as the sheer quantity of allergy free alternatives available in most stores.

An easy trick to shopping for dairy free items is to look for things labeled “vegan”. These products will not contain any animal products, including dairy and all its hidden names. Just make sure that you read the label so you don’t eat something that contains another allergen of yours if you have more than one allergy!

For a list of some of my favorite dairy alternatives, and when each non-dairy milk will work best in what recipes, make sure you grab a download of my free Food Swap Guide! It’s filled with over 45 swaps and substitutions so you can keep making your favorite recipes with your allergies.

Dairy free recipes

Want to check out some of the most popular dairy free recipes on the site? Give these a look!

Dining Out with Dairy Allergies

Perhaps the biggest change to your life with a dairy allergy will come from the options available to you when dining out. No longer can you just go grab a quick bite to eat, nor will you be able to freely eat at a friend’s house.

The best way to avoid (or at least try to avoid) getting sick at restaurants is to research ahead of time. Most restaurants post their menus online, which gives me a chance to figure out if this restaurant would be a safe option. Even if the menu says “dairy free” or “vegan” you still should research, because it is really difficult to ensure that a chef or kitchen will wipe off any surfaces, open new bags of ingredients, or even use a different set of gloves when preparing food.

To that effect, some places I have found to be generally safe include:

  • Chick-fil-A
  • Burger King
  • Chipotle
  • KFC
  • Popeye’s
  • Arby’s
  • Del Taco
  • El Pollo Loco
  • Panera Bread
  • Taco Bell
  • Subway

Other Hidden Sources of Dairy Not In Food

Beyond food, there are places that milk and dairy can hide, making you sick even though you don’t eat milk anymore! While you won’t be eating these things, you should be aware that a reaction can occur from touching or smelling dairy. These hidden dairy places include:

  • Medications (make sure you talk to your doctor before stopping medications and ask about switching to a different medication!)
  • Allergy medications are a big source of hidden milk products! Which is ironic as they are to help with allergies. Make sure you check with your doctor about what allergy medications to keep on hand.
  • Toothpaste
  • Lotions
  • Make-up

Make sure you check these places and use the list above to make sure that you and your family are safe from these hidden dairy sources!

Clean up your skincare routine, too!
Find out about my favorite products to clean my face that are allergy friendly!
(It’s basically a spa for your face.)

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I love when you share my recipes!

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  1. Great information! My mom told me it was determined I was allergic to dairy protein as an infant and the doctor told her to give me goat’s milk. Good to know that was wrong as my reaction when I have dairy is my vocal chords swell!

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