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Lactose Intolerance Factsheet (for Schools)

What Teachers Should Know

People with lactose intolerance have trouble digesting a sugar in milk and dairy products called lactose.

People with lactose intolerance don't make enough of an enzyme called lactase. So lactose doesn't get broken down in the small intestine, and passes into the large intestine. There, bacteria ferment it into gases and acids. This can cause cramps, belly pain, gas, and diarrhea. Symptoms usually happen within 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating or drinking anything that contains lactose.

For some students, symptoms can be severe and they can't eat or drink anything that contains lactose. For others, symptoms may be milder and they just have to limit the amount of dairy products they consume.

Students with lactose intolerance may:

  • need to use the bathroom often throughout the day
  • have to sit closest to the bathroom or door
  • be embarrassed by their symptoms
  • need to have special lactose-free lunches prepared in the cafeteria
  • need to go to the school nurse for medicine or to cope with symptoms
  • need extra time to make up missed class work

What Teachers Can Do

Lactose intolerance is not an allergic reaction. It's usually not life-threatening, but it can be upsetting or embarrassing for students when they have symptoms.

The best strategy for students with lactose intolerance is to avoid milk and dairy foods. But doing so can mean they don't get enough calcium in their diets. You can encourage them to eat calcium-rich foods in the cafeteria that don't have lactose, such as broccoli, dark leafy greens, beans, calcium-fortified milk alternatives, and tofu.

Most students know what they can and can't tolerate. But it's a good idea to contact their parents or guardians for a list of foods to avoid so you can offer alternatives if snacks are eaten in class. Check with the school nurse if you have other concerns.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date Reviewed: Nov 18, 2019

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