Lactose Intolerance

Lactose Intolerance

Lea este articulo en Espanol

About Lactose Intolerance

For many kids, an ice cream sundae or a cool glass of milk at lunch means an afternoon of cramps, gas, and diarrhea.

Kids who have this kind of discomfort after consuming dairy products might have lactose intolerance, which is caused by problems digesting lactose, the main sugar in milk and milk products.

Lactose intolerance happens when the body makes too little of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down lactose into two smaller sugars, called glucose and galactose. When there's not enough lactase in the body, lactose doesn't get broken down in the small intestine, and it passes into the large intestine where bacteria ferment it into gases and acids.

This process can cause cramps, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea about 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming any foods or drinks that contain lactose.

Body Basics: Digestive System

For some kids, these symptoms are very severe and their systems can't tolerate any lactose. For others, the symptoms are milder and they just have to limit the amount of dairy products they consume.

Lactose intolerance can be managed — and the stomach discomfort can be eased — with some changes to the diet. If you think that your child has a lactose intolerance, call your doctor.

Who Gets Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is more common among people of Asian, African, Native American, and Hispanic descent.

For most people with lactose intolerance, it remains a lifelong problem. But for some kids, it's a temporary condition that begins after they take certain antibiotics or have gastrointestinal infections, and eventually goes away.

Diagnosing Lactose Intolerance

Doctors usually diagnose lactose intolerance through a simple hydrogen breath test. A person blows into a tube to give a sample of the breath, then gives another sample after drinking a lactose solution or eating a lactose-containing food.

If someone has a lactose intolerance, the test will show that there is a higher than average level of hydrogen and methane in the breath. That's because undigested lactose leads to higher levels of these gases in the system, which can be detected in the breath.

Certain foods, medicines, and exposure to cigarette smoking can affect the test's accuracy, so the doctor might advise taking a few precautions before the test is done.

Besides the breath test, doctors usually do a physical exam and take a full medical history to rule out other medical conditions.

An endoscopy, which lets the doctor look at the esophagus, stomach, and part of the small intestines using a tiny camera, also can be done to check for lactose intolerance. In an endoscopy, the doctor may give the patient a medicine to help him or her relax and may spray the throat to numb it. This makes the test more comfortable. Most patients are given anesthesia and are "asleep" when this procedure is done.

The doctor then slides a thin, flexible plastic tube called an endoscope down the throat and into the esophagus and the stomach. A tiny camera in the endoscope lets the doctor look for abnormalities on the surface of the esophagus and stomach lining. During the endoscopy, the doctor also may use small tweezers (forceps) to remove a piece of tissue for biopsy. A biopsy can show damage caused by acid reflux or infection and help rule out other problems.

Problems digesting lactose can also occur in people with other diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, such as celiac disease, a condition in which the intestine becomes damaged due to the person's abnormal sensitivity to gluten (a protein found in wheat and certain other grains).

Living With Lactose Intolerance

Severity of lactose intolerance can vary widely between kids. Because each case is different, there's no one simple way of dealing with it. Each child needs to find what works best depending on the symptoms and how much, if any, lactase the body produces. It may help to keep a food diary as you figure out what foods and drinks your child's system can and can't handle.

Many foods, drinks, and digestive aids are available for those with a lactose intolerance (like milk specifically made for people with this condition, which most supermarkets carry). Ask your doctor if your child should supplement certain dairy products with drops or tablets that contain the lactase enzyme.

While kids with the most severe cases may have to avoid all dairy products, doctors now recommend that most have some dairy in order to get enough calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Many kids can have small amounts of dairy products — which should be consumed in combination with other foods that don't contain lactose — and some can have one to two glasses of milk each day without any problems, especially if consumed with non-dairy foods.

Also, kids with lactose intolerance may find that other dairy products, such as yogurt and cheeses, are easier to digest than milk. Lactose-free milk is also a great way to get calcium in your child's diet without the problems. A lactase enzyme supplement can be used, too. Taking this before eating foods that contain dairy will help the body digest the lactose sugar in dairy and prevent the symptoms of lactose intolerance, like pain, cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Encourage your child to eat other calcium-rich foods that don't have lactose, like broccoli, collard greens, kale, turnip greens, salmon, almonds, soybeans, dried fruit, fortified orange juice, and tofu.

Also, consider talking with a registered dietitian to come up with dairy alternatives and a well-balanced diet that provides vital nutrients for your child.

Reviewed by: J. Fernando del Rosario, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015





Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995-2015 KidsHealth® All rights reserved.
Images provided by iStock, Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Science Photo Library, Science Source Images, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com





Bookmark and Share

Related Resources
Web SiteAcademy of Nutrition and Dietetics Offering nutrition information, resources, and access to registered dietitians.
OrganizationNorth American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) NASPGHAN works to help children and adolescents with digestive disorders.
Related Articles
About Recipes for Teens With Lactose Intolerance These recipes are especially for teens with lactose intolerance. Teens with lactose intolerance often need to limit or avoid dairy products.
Calcium and Your Child Milk and other calcium-rich foods help build strong, healthy bones. But more than 85% of girls and 60% of boys don't get enough calcium each day.
About Recipes for Kids With Lactose Intolerance These recipes are especially for kids with lactose intolerance. Kids with lactose intolerance often need to limit or avoid dairy products.
Milk Allergy Milk allergy can cause serious reactions. Find out how to keep kids safe.
Digestive System The digestive process starts even before the first bite of food. Find out more about the digestive system and how our bodies break down and absorb the food we eat.
Food Allergies Struggling with strawberries? Petrified of peanuts? Sorry you ate shellfish? Maybe you have a food allergy. Find out more in this article for kids.
Milk Allergy Milk is in all kinds of foods, even things like baked goods. So what should a person who's allergic to milk do?
Milk Allergy in Infants Almost all infants are fussy at times. But some are excessively fussy because they have an allergy to the protein in cow's milk, which is the basis for most commercial baby formulas.
Digestive System Most people think digestion begins when you first put food in your mouth. But the digestive process actually starts even before the food hits your taste buds.
About Recipes for Kids With Lactose Intolerance These recipes are especially for kids with lactose intolerance. Kids with lactose intolerance often need to limit or avoid dairy products.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common intestinal disorder that can cause cramps, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Certain foods can trigger symptoms, as can emotional stress, infections, and physical trauma.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease It's normal to get a stomachache once in a while, but some kids have something more serious called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Find out more about it.
Belly Pain Ugh. Bellyaches. Find out what causes tummy trouble in this article for kids.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refers to two chronic diseases that cause intestinal inflammation: ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Although they have features in common, there are some important differences.
A to Z: Galactosemia Galactosemia is an inherited disorder in which the body can't break down a type of sugar called galactose.
Lactose Intolerance If you have lactose intolerance, you're not alone. Millions of Americans have the condition. Check out these tips on dealing with lactose intolerance.
Lactose Intolerance Kids with lactose intolerance have trouble digesting a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy foods. But by making smart choices, they can eat delicious foods without feeling sick.
What's the Difference Between a Food Allergy and a Food Intolerance? Food allergies and food intolerances, like lactose intolerance, are not the same. Find out more.
Calcium Your parents were right to make you drink milk when you were little. It's loaded with calcium, a mineral vital for building strong bones and teeth.
iGrow iGrow
Sign up for our parent enewsletter