Signs of lactose intolerance in kids

Does your child complain of a stomachache after they eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese, or have some ice cream? Maybe that glass of milk with breakfast upsets their stomach, too. It could be a coincidence, but it could also be a sign of lactose intolerance.

Lactose is a type of sugar that’s found in dairy products like milk, cheese and ice cream. If your child is lactose intolerant, it means they don’t produce enough lactase – the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose. When this happens, the bacteria and other organisms in the intestines ferment the lactose, leading to symptoms of lactose intolerance. People with lactose intolerance do not make enough of this enzyme, or the enzyme does not work as well as it should. Some infections, like you might get with food poisoning, can damage the enzyme but that usually goes away within a few weeks. Luckily, people with lactose intolerance can take an enzyme supplement to help with their problem.

Here are some common symptoms that may signal lactose intolerance in your child:

  1. Diarrhea or very foul-smelling stools, which may increase in frequency with the quantity of lactose your child consumes.
  2. Stomach pain, cramps or nausea, with vomiting in some extreme cases.
  3. Bloating or gas after consuming dairy products.
  4. Bad breath thanks to lactose fermentation, which produces methane and hydrogen gases.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance generally correlate with the amount of lactose that’s consumed. The more lactose your child consumes, the more symptoms they’re likely to experience.

Lactose intolerance in kids - HonorHealth pediatric gastroenterology

Do you suspect your child is lactose intolerant?

Try eliminating lactose-containing products (like milk, cheese and ice cream) for two weeks and see if symptoms improve. If it turns out that lactose is the likely culprit, there are lots of lactose-free products available you can substitute into your child’s diet. Look for lactose-free milk (Lactaid milk for example), or you can try a lactase enzyme supplement.

Is lactose intolerance basically a food allergy?

No. There are people who are allergic to milk and dairy foods, but the symptoms of a dairy allergy are often different from those of lactose intolerance. In the case of an allergy, the body reacts to the protein in milk, rather than to the sugar. Plus, allergies involve the body's infection-fighting system, called the immune system. Lactose intolerance does not.