What happens if a dairy allergy goes untreated?

A dairy allergy, also known as a milk allergy, is caused by the body’s immune system reacting to the proteins found in cow’s milk and products containing cow’s milk. When someone with a dairy allergy consumes milk or milk products, their immune system identifies the dairy proteins as harmful and releases chemicals like histamine to defend the body against them. This triggers an allergic reaction with symptoms that can range from mild to severe or even life-threatening.

Some common symptoms of a dairy allergy include:

  • Skin reactions like hives, eczema or itching
  • Digestive problems like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain
  • Respiratory issues like coughing, wheezing, runny nose or congestion
  • Anaphylaxis – a severe, whole-body allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and can cause dangerous symptoms like difficulty breathing, a swollen tongue or throat, and a drop in blood pressure

If left untreated, a dairy allergy can have long-term consequences for a person’s health and quality of life. Continuing to consume dairy can make the immune system’s response worse over time, and lead to increased inflammation that damages the body. Let’s look closer at what can happen when a dairy allergy is not properly managed.

Increased Severity of Reactions

One of the most significant risks of leaving a dairy allergy untreated is that it can cause the immune system to become even more sensitized to milk proteins. Each subsequent exposure triggers more antibodies and histamine release, making reactions tend to get progressively worse.

What may start out as mild hives or an itchy mouth could lead to full-blown anaphylaxis in the future after repeated dairy ingestion. Studies show those with untreated allergies are at higher risk for anaphylactic reactions. One study found 71% of severe reactions occurred in people who were knowingly dairy allergic but did not completely avoid it.

This increased sensitivity also means that trace amounts of milk could provoke reactions. Even small quantities of milk protein present due to cross-contamination of food or from medications/nutritional supplements could become problematic. Strict avoidance of dairy in all forms becomes necessary to prevent escalating symptoms.

Chronic Health Conditions

Leaving a dairy allergy untreated and continuing to consume milk products also increases inflammation in the body that can contribute to other chronic health conditions over time.

Gastrointestinal Problems: Ongoing immune system activation from dairy can cause chronic inflammation in the digestive tract, leading to consequences like irritable bowel syndrome, frequent abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea or nausea. Damaged intestinal lining can also contribute to nutritional deficiencies.

Respiratory Issues: Inflammation from a dairy allergy can worsen asthma, leading to more frequent attacks or reduced lung function. Chronic postnasal drip, congestion or sinus infections are also possible.

Skin Conditions: Hives, eczema and other rashes may recur and worsen when dairy intake continues. This can greatly reduce quality of life and require ongoing medications to manage symptoms.

Joint Pain: Some research indicates a link between untreated dairy allergies and increased incidence of joint problems like arthritis. Inflammation is thought to play a role in degenerative joint diseases.

Impact on Growth and Development

There is also some evidence that if children or infants with dairy allergies continue to consume milk products, it may negatively impact their growth and development.

Malnutrition and Poor Growth: Chronic intestinal inflammation can damage the lining of the gut and impact its ability to absorb key nutrients. This can lead to deficiencies and poor weight gain in children. Strictly avoiding dairy is important to allow proper growth.

Delayed Puberty: One study found a higher rate of delayed puberty in girls with untreated cow’s milk allergy. It is thought that inflammation may disrupt hormones and growth factors needed for normal development.

Ear Infections: Continued dairy intake is linked to higher risk of recurrent middle ear infections in allergic children, which can impact hearing and speech development.

While more research is needed, strict avoidance of dairy is currently recommended for children with milk allergies to ensure proper nutrition, growth and developmental milestones are reached.

Decreased Quality of Life

Living with uncontrolled dairy allergy symptoms can understandably take a toll on mental health and quality of life as well. Chronic health issues that flare after consuming dairy can make social activities around food difficult. Children may feel excluded from parties or feel isolated from peers. Adults can experience anxiety eating away from home or embarrassment from gastrointestinal issues.

There is also the fear and anxiety caused by not knowing when a life-threatening allergic reaction may occur, especially if prior reactions have been severe. Carrying epinephrine auto-injectors offers some reassurance, but overall quality of life is diminished without appropriate treatment and avoidance of dairy.

Increased Use of Medications

To manage the various symptoms caused by an untreated dairy allergy, medication use often increases. These may include:

Antihistamines: Used to control hives, itching, congestion
Corticosteroids: Help reduce inflammation underlying other symptoms
Bronchodilators: Open airways during asthma attacks or wheezing
Epinephrine: Treats anaphylaxis during a severe reaction
Immunosuppressants: Used in severe GI or skin manifestations
Antidepressants/anti-anxiety: Help with psychological aspects

While medications can provide relief, they come with side effects and risks. Relying on them in place of eliminating dairy means the underlying allergy continues to do damage. Lifestyle adjustments and avoidance of triggers is needed to properly treat a dairy allergy long-term.

When to Seek Help

If you suspect you or your child may have a dairy allergy, it’s important to see an allergist for proper testing and diagnosis. This should happen immediately after any severe reaction to dairy, or if milder symptoms persist in order to get appropriate treatment.

Allergists will use skin prick testing or blood tests to confirm an immunoglobulin E mediated dairy allergy. For non-IgE mediated allergies, an elimination diet may be used. Don’t attempt to self-diagnose, since other conditions can cause similar symptoms.

After diagnosis, the allergist will provide advice on strictly avoiding dairy products to manage the condition. They may prescribe epinephrine auto-injectors and medications to control symptoms as needed. Follow up appointments will be scheduled to monitor progress.

With proper avoidance and treatment under a doctor’s care, those with dairy allergies can prevent worsening reactions and development of chronic health conditions. This allows them to live full, active lives.

Living Well with Dairy Allergy

Though dairy allergies require diligence to manage, with effort it is possible to find substitutes and recipes to create meals you enjoy without the allergen. Here are some tips:

  • Read all food labels carefully to watch for hidden milk ingredients like whey or casein
  • Notify restaurants and friends about your allergy when eating out
  • Try plant-based milk alternatives like soy, almond or oat milk
  • Explore dairy-free versions of products like cheese, yogurt, ice cream
  • Find community and swapped recipes through dairy allergy blogs/groups
  • Consider supplemental calcium and vitamin D if cutting out dairy
  • Carry epinephrine auto-injectors at all times in case of accidental exposure

While extra planning is involved, it is possible to thrive with a dairy allergy. Being vigilant about avoidance and working with your doctor will allow you to stay safe and healthy.

The Bottom Line

Leaving a dairy allergy untreated and continuing to consume milk products can have detrimental effects on health and quality of life. Reactions will likely worsen over time and lead to chronic conditions like digestive disorders, arthritis, asthma, and skin issues. Children may face malnutrition, developmental delays, and other problems.

Working with an allergist on proper diagnosis, avoidance measures and symptom management is key to preventing complications. Though diligence is required, those with dairy allergies can live full lives by being aware of triggers and finding suitable milk substitutes. Addressing this condition promptly allows you to stay happy and healthy.

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